This post republishes a piece which was originally commissioned by myVLF and published on their blog as ‘Unpacking Your Library: 10 Top Tips to Organise Your Bookshelves’, myVLF, 3 September 2020.
Whether working, furloughed or simply unable to go out and socialise as much as usual, Covid-19 has given many of us more time at home. Many people have been unpacking their libraries (to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase), building reading nooks and reorganising their shelves. There’s a great tradition of writing to help us in doing this, and especially on the impact that sorting through our books has on us.
If you want to know how to organise your personal library and bookshelves, here are ten top tips based on practical experience and from ten of my favourite books.
As a rule of thumb, store like items with like – and don’t disperse storage throughout the house. Books are a special case: Group these by category – cookbooks, coffee table books, novels, etc. – and store them where they make the most sense. If you like to read before falling asleep, designate a book zone in your bedroom – this way they won’t overwhelm your nightstand or end up in a stack on the floor.
Store books on flat, smooth shelves, strong enough to support their weight. Ideally, books should not come into contact with unsealed wood which can release organic acidic vapours. Line shelves with acid free board to avoid this problem. Stand books vertically close together and if possible by size. Use bookends to prevent books collapsing.
Although it can look aesthetically pleasing to use different objects as bookends, remember that they are placed against the cover or board of the book, and a danger they can present is pushing unevenly against this. Uneven pressure can cause warping or, over time, even detachment of a board from the spine. This is also why we shelve books of a similar size together – tiny books next to large books can similarly put the spine and cover / board of the larger book under stress.
A good bookend lays flat against the book, and holds it upright. It should be pushed over far enough that the books stay in their positions but are not so tight that we put stress on any of them when we remove one from the shelf.
So, now we’ve established what good quality bookend looks like, let’s have some fun browsing for them. There are so many styles to choose from, there’s at least one to suit every home.
The book has been around for centuries, so there’s a wide range of antique and second-hand bookends out there to suit every budget.
I found my pair of plaster of Paris dinosaur bookends in Crystal Palace, which as well as being famous for its dinosaur park, is a significant place to me. They are both kitsch and historical, which fits my style perfectly.
Online sources of second-hand bookends include eBay, Etsy, and Preloved. Remember to look for flat backs though!
On the desk in my study, I use a pair of agate bookends to hold books on which I’m working. They were a present from my parents, so they’re both functional and spark joy (as Marie Kondo says things should).
Most books are robust enough to be shelved in this type of desk arrangement for a short space of time.
You have to be careful standing books next to natural objects. Bringing things in from the garden can introduce extra moisture (even if they don’t feel damp to the touch) and even insect life. Never place books against unsealed wood, as it can release acid which is extremely damaging to books. Be careful with waxed items too – you don’t want anything to transfer onto the cover or board from your bookend.
4. Share your interests.
There are bookends themed to suit almost every hobby and interest you can imagine – #bookends on instagram includes dogs, and bicycles and Star Wars, and, of course, reading.
The shop gives the advice, “They’re so unique that they’re never going to blend in, so instead create a conversation point!” That’s true for any bookend beyond the basic.
5. Put on a display.
Bookends aren’t the only support on the market. Sometimes you might want to highlight a book by having it face outwards.
I spotted this in the Publishers Association when I was attending a BIC course on ONIX metadata last November. As well as making me want to read Kingsford’s book (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way), it gave me something appropriate to look at in their reception area.
With this sort of display easel, it’s important that the book is supported but not forced – never try to squeeze a book onto a stand that is too small for it. Prefer one with a base, as pictured, to one with individual strips of metal or wood running under the book, as they will put pressure unevenly on the tail of the boards / cover. Recipe stands aren’t just for cookbooks! Some shelving systems, like Ikea’s Billy bookcases, are designed the option of display stands.
There’s so much more to be said about book supports – I’m aware of not even touching on bookends for children – but perhaps that’s a post for another day.
Anne Welsh‘s latest publication is a blog post at myVLF.com sharing top tips on how to organise your library.
You can read the tips in full on the myVFLF Blog (update: myVLF ceased trading in 2021, and the blog is republished here) alongside lots of other bookish posts. Librarian to the core, we thought it might be helpful to share a bibliography of the books and articles mentioned. Wherever possible, we’ve shared links to fulltext, WorldCat libraries, the original publisher, and secondhand sellers, in that order.