by Alison Lake

#21, 28 June 2004

Organizing Books for Pleasure and Profit
History of the Book Series

British art critic John Ruskin once said, "All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time." If only the task of dividing books were that simple. Book lovers and booksellers, especially those blessed with a sense of organization, know the importance of keeping one's books organized for quick retrieval.

Whether in a personal collection or a professional space devoted to selling books, there is a placement decision to be made for every book, even if it's to let them fall where they may. How do booksellers arrange and store their stock, and how do these methods compare with personal collections?

Henry Petroski's engaging book about books, The Book on the Bookshelf, devotes an entire appendix to the question of organizing books, titled "Order, Order." "This question," he writes, "like every question about order and design, is one to which there are many more answers than there are letters to the alphabet." The discussion addresses both professional and personal methods of organizing books.

For booksellers, some system needs to be in place, especially as stock grows. Alphabetically by author is a common approach in online stores specializing in fiction, subject matter, or specific groupings of authors. Birds Nest Books, a Missoula Montana, store specializing in rare, out-of-print, and used books by Montana authors and history, alphabetizes by author, as does Gary Wayner Natural History Books in Fort Payne, Alabama and The Vintage Library in Anthem, Arizona, whose sellers "focus on the spirit and excitement of the early to mid 20th century world of fiction."

The seller's approach often depends on the information that is most accessible and consistently at hand. In fiction, for example, author names are usually prominent and almost universally present. In this case, alphabetization makes sense. Petroski calls alphabetical order by the author's last name the "plain-vanilla" method of arranging books on shelves. He points out that arrangement by letter or title can challenge the casual collector with a habit of forgetting author's names and titles.

Kay Cumnock at Bell's Books in Palo Alto, California merges alphabetical order with genre division. "We stock our used books on the shelves by author first, then title, but before that we separate each into different genres: historical romance, contemporary romance, mystery, science fiction, war, and category romance, such as Silhouette or Harlequin."

Alphabetization has obvious limitations in bigger stores. Most brick and mortar stores also organize by topic area. Barnes and Noble, for example, groups books by topic first then, within each subject, uses alphabetical order by author. Bookseller John King in Detroit comments, "We have over nine hundred distinct categories, each alphabetized by author. We house over a million used and out-of-print volumes." His used and rare bookstore occupies four floors of a sprawling old glove factory building. Dealers of rare and used books face the additional factor of protecting more delicate volumes. "If the books fall into the 'rare' genre, then we house those separately in the rare book room. The most valuable are stored in glass cases."

Petroski describes a bookstore in Durham, North Carolina whose non-textbooks are arranged by publisher, segregating hardbacks and paperbacks to different parts of the store. "Within each publisher's section, books are further placed according to date of publication. For the hardbacks, this means that the most recently published books are at the end of the last shelf in the publisher's section; for paperbacks, the books are in numerical order according to the book's catalog number." He adds, "New hardbacks are arranged in a way Melvil Dewey would have deplored, for a given publisher's line is literally that - a long horizontal band of shelves stretching around the room without regard for crossing vertical shelf supports." This kind of arrangement can visually demonstrate the style and appearance choices of publishers.

James Spinti, marketing director at Eisenbrauns, a Warsaw, Indiana store that specializes in ancient Near Eastern and Biblical studies, illustrates how every seller's organizing needs can be different: "We are a shipping warehouse, not a walk-in store, so that affects how things are done. We have a three-fold division for new product-things we publish ourselves, things we have distribution rights on, and then general retail. Within these three areas the books are arranged by author and title. We also sell used books, and those are kept separate and shelved by author and title."

Apart from what we see on the shelves, a system operating behind the scenes can makes things run more smoothly for sellers. Computer programs assist in tracking and accessing stock, keep paperwork to a minimum, and promote an effective system of organization. The Cracked Book in Midlothian, Virginia uses a general book inventory system and favors software packages such as Anthology, HomeBase, Readerware, and BookTrakker Pro. These help sellers manage inventory and create databases of products. For example, Anthology offers internet-based electronic ordering, scanners, online inventory checkers, and other stocking tools that help sellers physically mark books and track them from acquisition to purchase. Most data management programs also have the capability of categorizing books in multiple ways - by author, title, subject, price, and publisher.

These classifications have their origins in traditional library cataloging. Books have been numbered for a long time. Melvil Dewey first used his system in 1873 at Amherst College, borrowing the idea from W.T. Harris at the St. Louis Public Library. Although still widespread, the Dewey Decimal System has been replaced by the Library of Congress system in many large university libraries. A problem with Dewey's system is the cumbersome length of call numbers.

The Library of Congress system developed as the national library was organized and reorganized with separate classifications and collections. Its classifications are alphanumeric with shorter designators than Dewey's - for example, Q335 M23. A major advantage of this system is that every book published in the U.S. has an LC designation on the copyright page. This, in turn, can function as a uniform designator for booksellers. Also, ISBN's (International Standard Book Numbers) are almost universally present on published books. Located near the Universal Product Code symbol, ISBN's are usually combined UPC's. The UPC always begins with 9, and the two codes have numbers in common.

Many booksellers follow some kind of numeric method to locate books on shelves, usually in the form of SKU's. Often, these numbers correspond to the order of acquisition. Bookseller and librarian Pamela Palmer comments, "A big advantage of accession numbers (or SKUs) is that books don't have to be shifted as often to accommodate additional titles as with alphabetical arrangement. The downside is having to use shelves tall enough for tall books or having an oversize area. Shifting books is not only boring - it causes book wear."

The Personal Collection

At home, efficiency of organization is not as crucial but is still useful for keeping at least some order. In her tiny narrative book, Ex Libris, a personal treatment of a love affair with books, Anne Fadiman talks about the challenge of combining her own library with her husband's. After "five years of marriage and a child,(we) finally resolved that we were ready for a more profound intimacy of library consolidation." She compares her own approach to the careful design of a French garden and likens her husband's style to the more haphazard English garden. This couple managed to combine the two collections and even found enough duplicate copies to fill a few boxes for the thrift store.

People organize their books in countless ways - by sentimental value, topic, readability, ownership, by read or unread, etc. - or they may abandon order entirely. Using an order of acquisition method, adding each new book to the end of the last shelf "can be very revealing of how one's taste in books has changed over the years," writes Petroski. Petroski also notes that in some homes "There are owners who wish to make a design or decorator statement with their books, by arranging them not with any intellectual order in mind - or even with any thoughts of ease of location down the line - but for maximum visual effect." Petroski even mentions a family that arranged its extensive book collection by color according to each room's decor.

In personal collections, size is often a consideration when placing books around other household belongings - larger coffee table books and atlases on the bottom larger shelves, smaller volumes nestled among knickknacks and plants. Unconventionally sized books may also require their own sections or horizontal placement.

As a child, I arranged my books by height. No one told me to do it this way. It just made sense to me. This approach does not account for the varying widths of books and can look untidy if the books are pushed against the back of the bookcase. I usually solved this problem by carefully lining up the books so all the spines were even, but the slightest touch can knock this system off-balance.

Do it by width, on the other hand, and you encounter the same problem of uniformity in one direction and randomness in the other. Horizontal placement, preferable to leaning books in a position that threatens their spinal integrity, may help fill in the open space between shorter books and the shelf above them. Of course, horizontally placed books are likely to be different sizes as well, so does one make a pyramid or have stacks separated by dimension? So many decisions, and so many books.

A BookThink forum member paints a colorful picture of her own collection: "Personal books are more or less all over the house - art books, encyclopedias, and attractive Victorian books, plus a large collection of children's picture books in the living room, fiction in the bedroom, science fiction and geography on the stairs, WWII in the closet, Canadiana in the bookcase near the TV, travel and maps next to the music stand, children's chapter fiction in a glass-front bookcase in the kitchen, etc." At home, books suit our moods, our interests, and our stages in life. It's fitting that each book should have its own place, one that suits its special purpose.

Mentioned Sellers

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