How to Organize Shelves

Bookshelves aren't just for books, anymore. Get creative!

"So many books, so little time." There are hundreds of thousands of books in and out of print. You've no doubt read a few you wish you hadn't. For the bibliophile, nothing is more delicious than shelves stocked full of books. But the joy quickly turns to frustration if you can't find the one you want. Row upon row of book spines wedged together in unrelenting formation is also wearying to the eye, not to mention detrimental to the books and horrifying to interior decorators.

One of the first decisions you'll have to make about organizing shelves is what you want to display. For the most attractive arrangement, don't use these shelves as storage areas to hold everything you own. Instead, choose books and items that you love and that have meaning for you.


As you arrange your treasured books on your shelves, consider their appearance. Leave the shabby paperbacks in a back room. If you're displaying a collection of books, display them together. For like-bound sets, alternate between standing and stacking the books on the shelf. Experiment with different arrangements until the color and design of the spines work together to make patterns that please you. If art is the focus of the books on your display, as in a collection of vintage picture books, arrange the books to draw attention to the artwork. Place a couple of books cover forward, perhaps on easels, in front of the other books. Display one open to a particularly captivating painting. To keep the arrangement fresh, change the display volumes when you dust.

You can achieve a balance between storage, function and artistic display on the shelves throughout your home and office. We've gleaned some tips and tricks from design professionals to guide you.


Organizing Shelves with Style and Function

Now that you've chosen the books you want to display, let's dress up the shelves with a little decoration. The rule of thirds, a tool that photographers and artists use to compose pictures, can help you create a dramatic point of focus on each shelf. To use the rule of thirds, visualize the shelf divided into three equal sections both horizontally and vertically. You'll establish the focal point for each shelf by including an object between the books at one of the intersections of these dividing lines. If you need to lift a small object up, stack books horizontally under it until it reaches the appropriate level, but remember to leave some empty space on either side. This draws the eye naturally to the focal point and lets it rest there. The items you choose for focal points might include clocks, vases, framed photographs and collectibles. To highlight a particularly special item, let it stand alone. If you want to include greenery, use artificial plants. The moisture and sunlight necessary to nourish living plants are damaging to books.

Some designers suggest repeating a color on each shelf to tie the entire display together. If red is the color you choose, you can place a red vase on one shelf, a red bowl on another, and a photograph framed in red on a third shelf. Or you could use themes to connect the items displayed on each shelf. For example, if you're arranging photo albums on a shelf, include something relating to the subject of the albums. If the albums are collections of vacation photos, use a souvenir from a memorable trip to create a focal point. Identify the wedding albums with a pair of toasting flutes. Let trophies, craft projects, sports equipment or framed certificates act as bookends for albums of children or grandchildren.


Speaking of children and grandchildren, you should set aside the highest shelves to display fragile items. Slip attractive or unique but sturdy baskets into the bottom shelves for clutter control. Use the baskets to store toys, remote controls and television viewing guides, unfinished crossword and Sudoku puzzles, and in-progress needlework. Baskets are also a great functional accessory in bathrooms to corral personal care items.

Office Organization

Take a cue from Dewey to get the most efficient organization method for working areas like offices and libraries. This doesn't mean you need to memorize all the categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system. It just means that you group books in a logical, orderly fashion. If you share office or library space with someone else, it might be a good idea to divide the shelf space into "his" and "hers" to house and organize the books of different readers.

To get started, separate the books into fiction, nonfiction and reference. If your library is vast, you may want to invest the time and effort to arrange your collection according to DDC. But since the current version of the system requires four volumes to explain, you'll probably want to use a method that just makes sense to you and the way you use your books [source: OCLC]. One idea is to arrange your shelves so that the books you use the most are the easiest to access, while the ones you rarely need live on the highest, lowest and furthest-away-from-your-desk shelves. Be sure to leave a handy space for frequently consulted reference books like your dictionary and thesaurus.


Once you decide which method you'll use to organize the books in your office, borrow some tips from the living room to help you create an attractive arrangement and pinpoint where each subject begins or ends. Instead of putting as many books on the shelf as it will hold, make stops between subjects (or subheadings if your collection of one subject is extensive) and place a related item in the space. Use a polished geode as a bookend for books on minerals; display an antique camera or a trio of different sized lenses at the beginning of the photography section. If your shelves must do double-duty and store supplies, employ a collection of uniform or decorative containers to hold paperclips, pens, envelopes, et cetera (designer Allison Spear favors the distinctive blue boxes from a posh jewelry retailer) and cluster them together as another focal point [source: Editors of House Beautiful].

Now it's time to head to your shelves, take everything off and start over following the tips and tricks you found here and some more you can find on the next page. Happy shelving!


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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