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home library organization

Easy Home Library Organization with the Dewey Decimal System

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On the social media I follow, I’ve seen people ask about home library organization more than once. The truth is there is no one best method. But if you have a lot of nonfiction books, I’d recommend the Dewey Decimal System. 

home library organization

Home Library Organization

Your home library can be organized in an infinite number of ways. Some people arrange their books by color, others by title, and some by rough subject groupings. There is no right way to do it. Do what works best for you. Personally, I don’t have a ton of fiction books so I just keep my fiction books together on the same set of shelves. If I had more than 50 or so, I’d probably group them by author or genre, but I have so few, I don’t bother. All my fiction books are snuggly arranged together. I can find what I want when I want it, so I don’t worry.

But my nonfiction books are on a whole other level. I have hundreds of nonfiction books. If  you can relate to that, this post may serve you well.

Your nonfiction books 

I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, your books are important to you . My books are my friends. If I buy a book and it disappoints, it doesn’t stay in my collection, but is given away to a good home. So the books I do keep have a place of honor in my home and my life.

I don’t want to lose track of any of them. And I want them arranged in a way that encourages a cross-pollination of ideas. Maybe I am looking for ideas on determination and am looking at my travelogues, but I notice on the shelf above something like Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by twentieth century physicist Richard Feynman. I remember a story he tells about learning to speak Japanese. I look through the book, and find a perfect example to use. That’s what I mean by “cross-pollination.” Sometimes it’s called serendipity.

As a public and school librarian in the United States, over a period of three decades, I became intimately acquainted with  Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). Maybe you, like me, first learned about the DDC in elementary school. While most college and university libraries have switched over to the Library of Congress system of classification, most high school and public libraries (at least in the United States) still use Dewey.

Dewey Decimal Categories

DDC makes it easy

The reason the DDC makes book organization easy is simple: it’s flexible and everything can be placed into a category within it. In fact, many books could fit comfortably into more than one category. A book about how Indian spices can improve your health could go under Applied Sciences (cookery or medicine) or Geography depending on the emphasis of the book.  The beauty is that in your home, you decide where to place it.

So you don’t need to go to library school and get a master’s degree to organize your books. Cataloging can be a complicated process but for your personal collection, you just need to know the basics. As an aside, you can also check the Cataloging in Publication on the back side of the title page in many books, or you can look up the official Dewey numbers used by librarians on either The Library of Congress catalog or the OCLC Classify  site. For more information, see my blog post “Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library .”

In this post, I will cover home library organization by the basic ten Dewey categories. In later posts, I will go into much more detail about each section, what you can find in each, and how to organize with more specifics. That way if your personal library has 300 books on politics, you can be more intentional about where you place each one. 

The four-step process

Home library organization can be accomplished in these four steps:

  1. Examine the chart above.
  2. Decide in which category above each book belongs. 
  3. Make piles of books for each category.
  4. Decide where each category will be housed. 

Optional additions

Assign each category a color if you’d like. Put a green label or  post-it note on all your natural sciences books, for instance. Have fun with it: your philosophy books can be blue and your religion books can be purple. While it’s not a necessary step for home library organization, it will help keep things tidy until you are done. 


Create spaces for each category.

Maybe you are lucky enough to have a whole room in which to keep your books. Great! That should make things easier for you.

But maybe you just have small sets of shelves scattered throughout your home. Or maybe you don’t have shelves at all. No worries!  To me, a room without a books is a room without a soul. When you get a chance, scout out local thrift or pawn shops for small sets of shelves that can be scattered throughout your home or apartment. You can also build your own. Pinterest has lots of inexpensive and creative ideas. If you want, you can go the high dollar route and get a set from a furniture store. Do what works best for you. 

Decide which shelving units or rooms would be best suited to the categories of books you have. The Nassau Public Library in the Bahamas, is located in a remodeled eighteenth-century jail. Each cell has its own category of books. When I visited it in 2012, I thought it was one of the coolest libraries I had ever visited.

Make a spreadsheet for your books.

That’s one way you can have a record of exactly which books you own and the category they’re housed in. Each major DDC category can be placed on a separate sheet. The books can be searched quickly by either title or author’s last name this way. No need to get fancy. Make a column for the author (last name first should work best) and then a column for the title. If you want to really be efficient, place articles (A, An, and The) at the end of the title in your column. For example: Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, The.

But if you want to get fancy, you can actually put the call number you assign on the spine of the book. Please be aware, though, that this may hurt the value of the book for future owners.

My suggestion, unless you have an extensive collection in one category, is to group them by the number in the hundreds or tens (more on that in future posts), then place them alphabetically or by color or whatever makes you happy.

As long as you have a spreadsheet, pictures on your phone, your photographic memory, or some other way to keep up with where you placed them, you can find them easily enough. And having your books divided into broad categories will make for easier, more satisfying browsing. It’s fun to go exploring in your books. 

For more information on keeping records for you books, see my blog post on the topic. 

Category Summaries

I’m going to give you the eighth-grade English class tour through the ten major Dewey Decimal categories. Each of these will be covered in much more detail in future posts.

100s General Knowledge

This section is a catch-all of sorts. It contains books about computer information systems and software, UFOs, encyclopedias, books about books, museums and journalism in all media forms. It is my favorite category and I cover it in more detail in the next post.

100s Philosophy and Psychology

The 100s section houses books about humankind’s understanding of itself. Where did we come from? What do we know about knowledge? What is reality? Books that discuss fundamental questions like these go here. It also has books about different schools of philosophical thought. Psychology books take a large chunk of space with a large part of that the self-help books. Interestingly, parapsychology books also go in the 100s:  the ghost stories, the witchcraft books, and many New Age books. Fun stuff.

200s Religion

Books about what humankind thinks and has thought about God or collections of deities belong in this category. I talk more about this category and the fights it spawned in library cataloging classes I took in the 1990s in another post. Be assured that there is room for every religion in the world in Dewey, even though eight of the ten  categories within it are devoted to the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is a place for all books on this topic, so yes, even atheism goes here.

300s Social Sciences

For many libraries, this section takes up more shelf real estate than any other. It covers a lot of topics. Basically it’s about human civilization and varied groups. Many works cover how and why we do or don’t get along. So books on race relations, LGBT, feminism, laws, politics, economics, education, transportation, environmental policies, government, and even folklore belong here, as do books on fashion and manners.

400s Language

In physical terms, Language tends to be the opposite of the mammoth Social Science section. In most libraries, Language is by far the smallest section in terms of the number of books. Many language books were traditionally housed in a separate reference section, but with the advent of the internet and online databases, many now shelve these books in the general collection. This section will be home to dictionaries, usage and grammar guides, and any discussions of language and its history, or the proper use of any language in the world.

500s Natural Sciences

There are two major science categories in Dewey. In this first one, the natural sciences, you’ll find books about anything you can find in nature. In other words, humankind did not so much invent the subjects in this category as discover them. These could also be called the descriptive sciences, the aim is to find and describe what is already there.  Here we have math, physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth sciences, paleontology, plants and animals. It was a favorite section for many of my elementary school students when I worked in those schools.

600s Applied Sciences

In our second science category, unlike the 500s, all the topics are reflective of the learning of humankind and how we have manipulated the natural environment to come up with manmade materials or systems. So we call them the applied sciences and some libraries add “and technology.” So here we have medicine, health books, cookbooks, gardening, husbandry, rockets, cars, boats, business, homemaking, sewing, carpentry and manufacturing books. The books in this section are widely varied and many are practical. Many  “How-to” books belong here.

700s Arts and Recreation

This is another large section that was quite popular with my K-12 students. The “arts” referred to here are shelved in the first nine sections of this area. I shelves the general art books, art history, sculpture and ceramics, drawing and painting, graphic art books, craft books, knitting and crochet books, photography, movies and live performances such as dance and music, just to name a few. The final tenth of the available classification numbers are for games, both indoor and out. It also has a place for every kind of team sport, and outdoor recreation from hiking to fishing, rodeos, and the martial arts.  

800s Literature

I used to tell my students that Literature is basically art made with words. So books that talk about how to write well, that discuss what makes great writing, and that contain examples of great writing from all over the world belong here. There is room for poetry, essays, long fiction, short stories, and criticisms from every language in the world, both living and dead. It is my second favorite section.

900s Geography, Biography, History

 This category covers the entire planet: its places, people, and past.  Travel guides and essays go here and so do books about individual lives and family lines. The history of the entire human race (as far as we can discern it) are shelved in the 900s. This, along with the 300s are the largest two sections in most libraries and I think it would be safe to say, one of the most fascinating sections to browse in any library.

Recapping the process

So how would this look for you if you are keen on home library organization? First, set aside some time to go through your beloved books. Are there any that really don’t belong there? Be honest, as Marie Kondo says, if they don’t spark joy for you on any level, maybe it’s time to thank them and let them go. There may be someone else in the world who would treasure a book that does nothing for you. 

Next, is the fun part, go through your books one by one. Look at the title page. Look at the table of contents. Examine the illustrations. What is the book about primarily? More important, what purpose does the book serve for you? If it is a book on Marilyn Monroe, but you use it as a fashion guide in your personal wardrobe, you don’t have to keep it with the biography books. For you, it might belong in the 300s with the history of fashion or in the 600s with books about personal style. 

Once you have thoughtfully weeded and sorted your books, think about where it makes the most sense to keep them. I have kept all my cookbooks and nutrition books in an empty cabinet in my kitchen for years. It just makes sense. And while a bathroom is not an ideal place to keep a shelf of books, if you love to read miscellany in the tub, why not keep those books on a shelf outside the bathroom door? Be creative, think about your space and your needs and see what solutions you can find. 

Dewey Decimal Classification System history

Libraries are probably as old as writing itself. If you are interested in an extensive, well-researched history of libraries, take a look at Matthew Battle’s The Library: An Unquiet History. It is a fascinating romp through the multi-faceted world of libraries from ancient times to the present.

The picture to the left is of Melvil Dewey, the namesake of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, which was taken in 1856. 

Melvil Dewey
Source: Wikipedia

Library classification revolution

Large libraries had a pretty big problem up until the mid- to late-nineteenth century. As books became more common after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, somewhere around 1440, it became difficult to find books in large libraries. Until that time, most had arranged books either in the order in which they were acquired or by the physical size of the codex (physical book) or manuscript.

Melvil Dewey, a librarian assistant at Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1872, decided that the best way to arrange the books would be by subject in a flexible system. His idea revolutionized library arrangement. The  classification system that bears his name has since been adopted in many libraries around the world. And while it’s not perfect (see the 200s above), it was a vast improvement over what had been used in the past.

DDC in libraries today

Most public libraries and school libraries in the United States still use the Dewey Decimal Classification.

In recent decades, mostly in elementary schools, there has been a movement to arrange books in a more general set of categories (Animals and Outer Space, for instance) so that younger users can grasp the concept of book arrangement but not become confused by the sometimes intricate decimal system. In addition, some high school and even public libraries have moved to a more book store style format for arranging their books.

I think this is a mistake for libraries past the elementary school level. The Dewey Decimal System has performed so well because the decimal system itself allows for books to be arranged by a great deal of subject specificity. This ultimately makes it much easier to locate books you want to read. While it may not be a huge concern in a library of only a few thousand books, for much larger collections, those specific categories can greatly aid location. 

Another reason to stick with the system is that users who are familiar with it can walk into any library anywhere and easily find their way around the collection. Anything that speeds access to books sought is worth the time and effort to learn and use. It helps patrons (the term libraries traditionally call their customers), so it helps libraries. While I’m sympathetic to the efforts to simply book arrangement for the youngest users in elementary schools, I feel it is a mistake to completely do away with a classification method that has served us so well for over 150 years. Modify when needed, but surely a complete revision on an institution-by-institution basis risks making libraries as a whole much more difficult rather than easier to use. 

Not feeling it?

If you’ve looked over the catagories of the Dewey Decimal System, and you’re thinking to yourself, “That makes absolutely no sense to me,” try to come up with your own subject headings. Or come up with a system based on symbols or base three or whatever strikes your fancy. Send me a message below describing it. 

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