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Organize Your Natural Science Books in 4 Easy Steps

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Are you obsessed with science? Maybe you’ve got a degree in physics or chemistry; botany or zoology. Perhaps you’ve got a ton of books on math or mushrooms. Or maybe you’re obsessed with volcanoes.

These are just some of the books that belong in the natural sciences section of any library that classifies its books by the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Whether you have a lot of natural science books or if you only have a few, this post will help you organize them.

Let’s get started. 

Facts are the air of scientists. Without them you can never fly.

Linus Pauling
laboratory

Home Library Organization

People who love books often accumulate large collections. And finding yourself wanting to consult a particular book only to  waste a lot of time tracking it down, it can be a frustrating experience. You’re pretty sure you still have it, but it’s lost among all the others. 

In an earlier post, I outlined the advantages of using the Dewey Decimal Classification system for organizing your nonfiction books. If you have a lot nonfiction print books in your collection, that’s the first step.

If you suspect your collection contains a lot of General Knowledge, Philosophy and Psychology, Religion, Social Science, or Language, Applied Sciences, Arts and Recreation, Literature, or Geography, Biography, and History books, I have posts for these categories as well.

In my first post, I listed a few subjects that belong in the 500s (Natural Sciences) section. In addition to chemistry, physics, math, tigers, weather, and astronomy, you will also find books on rocks, the scientific method, wildflowers, marine biology, quantum theory, fractal geometry, atomic physics, and dinosaurs.

If  more than 30 of your books belong in the natural sciences, read on. This post will give you the guidance to further refine the placement of the natural science books in your collection.

Dewey Decimal Categories

The chart above covers the basic ten categories of the DDC. If you haven’t gone through your books to decide where they belong, you may want to look at my first post and go through those steps first. Then come back here for more in depth information on the third category:  the 500s Natural  Sciences.

The 4-step process of home library organization

The four-step home organization process is covered in more detail in “Easy Home Library Organization Using the Dewey Decimal System.” But here, briefly, are the steps:

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

Very few personal collections contain books in every category. You may be surprised to find 90 percent of your books can be grouped into one specific section.

Below is a chart that further subdivides the Natural Sciences category.

natural science books categories

You may want to look over each subdivision and further divide your books accordingly. For instance, if you had 30 books marked as belonging in Social Sciences, you may now have 10 of those marked at 520, 5 as 550, 3 as 570, and 12 as 590. If you chose to make a spreadsheet of your books as suggested in “Easy Home Library Organization Using the Dewey Decimal System, you may want to consult my post on “Simple Record Keeping for Your Home Library.” 

Every book collection is different. The point is to narrow your collection down more specifically, so you will be able to locate the books effortlessly when you need to find one. An added benefit is the serendipitous connections that can be made when similar books are placed together. 

The natural science books in brief

You don’t have to be a scientist to gain a lot from the natural sciences. Many people are curious to discover all they can about the natural world.  And most people understand the difference between this section and the 300s, the social sciences. Those are sometimes called the “soft sciences” like sociology, criminology, anthropology. While these sciences can be tested in labs and may be studied with scientific methods, the variables are almost infinite. In the natural sciences, it is easier to study with more specificity. 

Sometimes students I worked with were confused about the differences between the 500s (natural sciences) and the 600s (applied sciences).

Here’s how I explained the difference to them. The 500s are the things you find in nature. Even if there were no people on the planet, these things would exist. (Math being a possible exception. There is a debate if math was a discovery or an invention).

The 600s, being applied sciences, are the sciences that have come about as a result of humans interacting with their environment. So our manipulation of plants and livestock for agriculture; our manipulation of physical principles and materials to create all sorts of technology; and our manipulation of edible materials to create cookbooks are just a few examples.

500 Natural Science

natural science books
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Books that are placed in the numbers between 500-509  are either general books about natural science or they are interdisciplinary books about particular disciplines. So books about the scientific method are shelved here. Books that combine the natural and applied sciences go here too. Scientific education; the approach to science in various geographic locations; and biographies of scientists also belong in the 500-509 section. 

Recommended books in general science:

  • The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre

510 Mathematics

mathematics

Middle school students were often amazed when I would point out we had books on math in the library. They were under the impression that math and books couldn’t mix. Textbooks with math problems were the only way the two came together. But math underpins almost everything.  

Mathematics, as any high school graduate knows, is more than just arithmetic. There are whole areas of math that most people never study in depth, such as finite and discrete mathematics; graph theory; mathematical models and simulations; and mathematical logic. We also find the more familiar algebra, topology (the mathematics of changes in object shape, who knew?), math analysis, numerical analysis, probabilities, and applied mathematics in the 510s. Game theory also goes in the math section.

Recommended books in mathematics:

  • Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos
  • How the Brain Learns Mathematics by David A. Sousa
  • The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio
  • Super-crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers is the New Way to Be Smart by Ian Ayers

520 Astronomy and allied sciences

astronomy

I think it’s sad that we have so much light pollution in the world now. When I was a child in the 1960s and ‘70s, I loved to sit outside at night with my family and look at the sky. The stars were an infinite source of wonder and beauty. But now, even in my rural backyard, stars are not as visible. In many places, they can’t be seen at all. What a loss!

Maybe some of the wonder can be recaptured through reading books that are shelved in this section. The books can cover the  equipment and techniques specific to the study of astronomy and studies of the universe like galaxies, planets, orbits, stars, black holes, and supernovas, go here.

But this section also houses books on celestial navigation that mariners used to sail around the world before satellites, like latitude, longitude, position determination. Astronomical and nautical almanacs are shelved in the 520s. And so are books on chronology (measurement of time, by days, and calendars).

Recommended books on astronomy:

  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  • The Boundless Universe: Astronomy in the New Age of Discovery by Sidney C. Wolff
  • Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
  • The Acceleration of Just about Everything by James Gleick

530 Physics

physics

Physics was a popular section among certain groups of my high school students. This section has books on energy, matter and antimatter. Both classical and quantum mechanics are shelved here as well.  A few more highlights of this section are states of matter (solids, liquids, gases, etc.); measurement; fluid mechanics (hydraulics); pneumatics (gas mechanics); sound and related vibrations; light and related radiation; heat; electricity and electronics; magnetism; and modern physics (quantum, nuclear, radiant, and atomic).

Recommended books in physics:

  • E=mc²: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis
  • The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking
  • The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom by Brian Cathcart
  • Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

540 Chemistry and allied sciences

chemistry

When I was around 10 or so, I was excited to get a chemistry set for Christmas one year. I had no doubt I would unlock the secrets of the universe. But it didn’t quite work that way, probably because partly because I didn’t have the patience to read and understand the manual.

For people who do have the interest, drive and patience, books about the philosophy and theory of chemistry; laboratory management; analytic chemistry; inorganic chemistry (also called physical chemistry); organic chemistry (compounds and biochemicals when not considered in their biological context); crystallography; and mineralogy can be found in the 540s. 

Recommended books on chemistry:

  • Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern
  • Let Them Eat Flax: 70 All New Commentaries on the Science of Everyday & Life by Joe Schwarcz
  • The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

550 Earth science

Earth science

This should be a fascinating section for everyone: it’s our home! Every square inch on the Earth’s surface is teeming with chemicals, minerals, and life! So much is going on right under our noses. So this is a huge topic. Let’s break it down a little.

The big three overarching subjects in the 550s are geology, hydrology, and meteorology. Books on erosion, weathering, sediments and soils; glaciers; oceanography and submarine geology; lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and groundwater; thermodynamics involving temperatures, radiation, atmospheric pressure, climatology and weather; natural gas and petroleum; and iron, metals, minerals, marble, clay, pigments, water and gems are shelved here.

All these subjects are broken down by geographic areas as well. So many of the books in the 550s pertain to the Earth sciences as specific to Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australasia, Pacific Ocean islands, Atlantic Ocean islands, Arctic islands, Antarctica and extraterrestrial worlds.

Recommended books on Earth Science:

  • The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet by Robert M. Hazen
  • Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
  • Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester
  • A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice by William E. Glassley

560 Paleontology

paleontology

In the elementary school libraries I worked in, this had to be a huge section because so many of the kids were obsessed with dinosaurs.  But for anyone who wants to know more about fossils, dinosaurs, and other prehistoric living creatures; prehistoric plants and their fossil remains; fossils of sea creatures, insects, amphibians and early mammals, including early humans, visit a library and you’ll find plenty there for adults as well. Maybe you have quite a collection yourself. 

Recommended books on paleontology:

  • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould
  • Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline by Kirk Johnson
  • Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey
  • Sabertooth by Mauricio Anton

570 Biology

biology

Biology is the overarching topic of the rest of the 500s section. General biology is covered in the 570s and the next two sections break it down further: the 580s house the books on plants and the 590s house the books on animals.

The 570s are the books you might associate with your high school biology class. It includes books on experimental biology; the history; geographic treatment; and biographies of biologists. Books on physiology; plant microorganisms; anatomy; biophysics; tissue biology; cell biology; biological control and secretions; reproduction; development and growth; and diseases.

Biochemistry, the physiological systems of plants and animals: like the circulatory system, respiratory system, and digestive system have books here. The 570s also have books on genetics and evolution; ecology; population biology; the natural history of organisms like adaptation; and non-taxonomic kinds of organisms (those that don’t belong anywhere else).  

Recommended books on biology:

  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
  • The  Double Helix by James D. Watson
  • Charles Darwin: The Power of Place by Janet Browne
  • She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer
  • Every Living Thing: Man’s Obsessive Quest to Catalog Life, from Nanobacteria to New Monkeys by Rob Dunn

580 Plants

The plants written about in this section are the plants generally found in nature. Books on gardening or decorative plants will belong in the 600s or the 700s.

So in the 580s we find natural histories of plants that consider genetics, evolution, age characteristics, adaptation, miscellaneous non-taxonomic kinds of plants, plant ecology, and plants characteristics of specific environments. Specific plants of individual species families will go here as well: plants noted for vegetative characteristics and flowers: dicotyledons (like magnolias, buttercups, and oat trees); monocotyledons (like  lilies, palms and grasses); gymnosperms (like pine trees, cypress and ginkgo); seedless plants (like horsetails, ferns and club mosses); and bryophytes (like mosses and liverworts).

Recommended books about plants:

  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • The Scout’s Guide to Wild Edibles: Learn How to Forage, Prepare and Eat 40 Wild Foods by Mike Krebill
  • Trees: Between Earth and Heaven by Gregory McNamee

590 Animals

Most people would be captivated by this section as well. As with plants, this section is specifically for books about wild animals. Domesticated animals would belong in the 600s.

Specific books on the natural history of animals involving behavior, genetics, evolution, age characteristics, physical adaptations, behavior, behavior relating to lifestyle, and non-taxonomic kinds of animals (nonnative, alien, exotic, introduced, invasive, naturalized and so on) are shelved in the 590s.

Other books that go here cover animal ecology and animal characteristics by specific environments. For example, books shelved here include invertebrates as a group or individual types like sponges, comb jellies and echinoderms and hemichordates like sea cucumbers; mollusks and molluscicides like snails, slugs, and clams; arthropods like crustaceans, chelicerates which are horseshoe crabs and sea spiders; myriapods like centipedes and millipedes, insects, chordates; cold-blooded vertebrates like fishes, amphibians, and reptiles; birds (both land and water); and mammals including marsupials, placental, bats, cetaceans, sea cows, bovids, carnivores and primates, including apes and humans.

Recommended books about animals:

  • The Living Wild by Art Wolfe
  • Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell
  • The Tangled Tree: A Radical History of Life by David Quammen
  • The Soul of the Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • Sex, Love and DNA: What Molecular Biology Teaches Us about Being Human by Peter Schattner

Sit back and admire your organized shelves

Once you have further subdivided your natural science books, check “Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library” if you are keeping track of your book arrangement. Part of the joy of having a system is that you will never need to worry about misplacing a beloved book again.

Now pour yourself a favorite beverage and enjoy your organized book collection.

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