How to Create a Home Library

A glimpse of Thomas Jefferson's library at his home, Monticello
A glimpse of Thomas Jefferson's library at his home, Monticello
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"I cannot live without books," declared U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to his friend John Adams. Indeed, Jefferson was an obsessive book collector from a young age, amassing three separate home libraries in his lifetime. The first collection was destroyed when his family home burned down in 1770. Jefferson wrote to a friend that he would have felt less grief to lose the money he had spent on the books than he did losing the books themselves [source: Monticello].

When the Library of Congress was destroyed in the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his second collection of about 6,000 books to the federal library [source: Library of Congress]. Jefferson's library was considered the finest in the country, and his collection doubled the holdings of the Library of Congress. Still, Jefferson didn't let the shelves at Monticello sit empty. By the time he died 11 years later, he had more than 2,000 volumes in his library [source: Stanton].


Jefferson's library might fit your conception of an old-fashioned home library with leather-bound books, wood paneling and uncomfortable furniture. But home libraries can be a dynamic expression of the owner's personality. Creating a home library is a fun way to display your interests while establishing a special space for reading.

While there's no right or wrong way to design a library, the questions can be daunting, especially to someone with hundreds or thousands of books. How do I organize? How do I get everything to fit? We'll discuss how to build a home library that works for you. On the next page, we'll look at ideas for organizing a collection that includes everything from French philosophers to fictional boy wizards.

Home Library Organization

Your method of organizing books may only make sense to you.
Your method of organizing books may only make sense to you.
Philip Lee Harvey/Stone/Getty Images

When you started using the public library, you probably learned about Melvil Dewey and his system for ordering libraries. The Dewey Decimal Classification System has ten broad categories for organizing books, including philosophy, religion and the arts. Each category is assigned a number, so for example, when you want a book on modern art, you head to the 700 block. Larger libraries, such as those at universities, tend to use the Library of Congress Classification System because it offers a more specific array of subjects for categorization, adding subjects such as medicine and law for a total of 21 categories.

Your home library may or may not be as large as your local public library, but a good system of organization will still help you find the book you want quickly. You could take a page from Dewey and the Library of Congress and sort books by subject matter. Sections for subjects such as history, technology or fiction might make their retrieval easier. This system also would allow you to highlight a particular passion, such as an extensive collection of World War II history.


Here are some other ways to organize a collection.

  • Alphabetizing by author works well for fiction but not necessarily for nonfiction books of various subjects.
  • Judging a book by its cover is usually frowned upon, but sorting by color can be aesthetically pleasing to some. Those generally forgetful about the colors of their books might disagree.
  • After a painful breakup, the main character in Nick Hornby's book "High Fidelity" organizes his record collection autobiographically in the order he acquired them. A chronological organization might include shelves that track the progress of your life, from beloved childhood reading and college textbooks to parenting books.
  • To some readers, there are two ways to look at books: read and unread. Prioritizing when you might need the book will allow you to keep unread books at the forefront of your collection, as well as books you reach for frequently, such as reference books or favorite novels.

Once you've organized your collection, you're going to need a place to put it. On the next page, we'll take a look at bookshelves and other library furniture.

Library Furniture

This lucky person has lots of room for a home library that incorporates built-in bookshelves, comfy seating and ample light.
This lucky person has lots of room for a home library that incorporates built-in bookshelves, comfy seating and ample light.
Alvis Upitis/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

While it might be difficult for a book lover to spend money on something other than books, at some point, you will need some bookshelves. Recessed, or built-in, bookshelves can provide floor-to-ceiling storage and space savings. They can be tucked under staircases or other out-of-the-way spaces; however, they're not a good choice for renters, and they can represent a big investment in terms of price and installation. Freestanding bookcases are widely available in a variety of sizes, colors and price points. You can also mount hanging bookshelves onto the wall or buy glass cases, which might be preferable if your collection includes antique books that you want to preserve.

Sagging poses the main threat to bookshelves. A bookshelf that is 36 inches (91 cm) long should have shelves at least one inch (2.54 cm) thick. If it's longer, then it should be thicker so that it won't droop under the weight [source: Ellis]. One tip for maximizing space on the shelves is to use adjustable bookshelves, so that very small books don't take up space that can be better used for taller coffee table books. You can also decorate bookshelves with personal items, such as photographs and souvenirs. Not only will this break up the rows of books visually, it will also give you room to expand as your collection grows.


As your bookshelves creep up the wall, you may need a library ladder to reach them. While any step stool or ladder will do, rolling library ladders add an elegant, whimsical touch. The ladders attach to the shelf on a tracking rod, and the bottom of the ladder has wheels, so that you can move effortlessly from one end of the library to the other.

When considering other library furniture, think about how you'll be using the room. If you'll be writing and taking notes on your reading, you may want a desk or a lap desk. Desks and bookstands are also helpful for reading those big volumes that are too heavy to hold up comfortably. Overstuffed couches and chairs will beckon guests to spend a few hours reading, but if you fall asleep as soon as you hit the couch, you may need to consider other options, particularly if you'll be doing scholarly or professional reading.

Wherever you're sitting, it will be hard to enjoy a library if you're suffering from eyestrain, fatigue and headaches, which can all be brought on by poor lighting. When selecting lighting, look for a lamp that will help you see the smallest text you read. The lamp should be positioned over your shoulder, so that the light is not directly in your eyes. Positioning it this way will also help to minimize glare. Your lamp should be brighter than the rest of the room but not that much brighter. However, all light will eventually damage books, so use it at a minimum [source: Ellis].

Did a shudder just run up your spine at the thought of damaged books? Read on to learn about keeping your books safe from their natural predators.

Book Care: Protecting Books from Mice, Mold and Moisture

This guy may look friendly, but he will eat your book.
This guy may look friendly, but he will eat your book.
Michael Carroll/Photodisc/Getty Images

Do you devour books quickly? You're not the only one. Some insects love books, but not for a good story. Silverfish are hungry for glue and paper, and like the worst bullies, they hang out in dark corners and come out at night. Cockroaches leave a telltale brown liquid across the pages of a book when they haven't devoured its paper and bindings. Bookworms are not just those readers that have their nose in a book all the time. The more dangerous kind will tunnel through the book, eat the pages and lay eggs in it. Book lice thrive in dark dusty corners where they can eat book paste, glue and fungus. Termites are attracted to wooden bookshelves and, once there, find delicious paper as well. Rodents including mice and rats also love to eat books.

Once you identify an infestation, isolate the affected books. In some cases, you can seal the books in plastic bags and freeze them to kill the insects. Keeping your library free of excess moisture and dust will help to prevent an attack by these insects and vermin.


Controlling moisture and dust doesn't just keep away the book bugs though. Moisture in the air will also promote the growth of fungus and mold. Mold develops at temperatures greater than 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), and with 65 percent relative humidity [source: Ellis]. Dehumidifiers will suck excess moisture out of the air, moisture that could otherwise lead to loose bindings, stains and mildew. Oppositely, too little humidity can dry out books, so use a humidifier in the drier winter months. Dust is also a magnet for moisture and mildew, so periodically dusting the tops of books will keep them clean. In addition to a humidifier, you also might need a fan to keep the library well ventilated. Books should be stored away from radiators and kept in a room between 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius and 21 degrees Celsius). Air conditioners and fans are fine to use to keep the temperature down. Extreme heat will damage books; if heat occurs in a room with low humidity, the fibers in the books will dehydrate, turning the pages brittle. In combination with high humidity, heat creates ideal growing conditions for mold.

As we mentioned in the last section, lighting can damage books because it leads to bleaching, fading and eventual deterioration. Natural lighting is the most dangerous. If your library has windows, draw the blinds or curtains to minimize injury. Limiting the intensity of light and duration of exposure will help to preserve the books.

Ready to start lining some shelves with your beloved books? Turn the page for some helpful links on setting up your home library.

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  • ­Ellis, Estelle, Caroline Seebohm, and Christopher Simon Sykes. "At Home with Books." Carol Southern Books. 1995.
  • Goering, Matt. "Books Need Homes Too." Service Magic. (March 13, 2008)
  • Library of Congress. "Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress." (March 13, 2008)
  • LibraryThing. "LibraryThing: About." (March 13, 2008)
  • Monticello. "A Library of America: Exploring the West from Monticello." (March 13, 2008)
  • Sahoo, Jyotshna. "Preservation of Library Materials: Some Preventative Measures." Orissa Historical Research Journal. Vol. XLVII, no. 1. 2004. (March 13, 2008)
  • Stanton, Lucia C. "Thomas Jefferson and Books: Some Highlights." Monticello Research Department. January 1993. (March 13, 2008)
  • The Straight Dope. "What's so great about the Dewey Decimal System?" Jan. 31, 2006. (March 13, 2008)