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Simple Record-Keeping for Your Home Library

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Why should you bother with keeping records of the books in your home library?

If you have a lot of books, you may have noticed that sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what you’ve got. Maybe you decide you want to show one to a friend, but after searching everywhere, you can’t find it. Or worse, you buy a new book only to realize you already have a copy of it. For any book lover, there’s a lot to be gained from having your home library organized and accessible. 

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

Record-keeping for your home library


Simply your life:

  • Know exactly which titles you own.
  • Easily locate any book by either its title, author, or subject.
  • Know exactly where to place any book when you’re finished with it.
  • Fulfill your librarian fantasies. If you’re reading this, you probably have them.

Sources for cataloging information

There are four ways to determine the Dewey Decimal Classification number for a nonfiction book:

  1. My previous blog posts. A side benefit of this approach is that going through the process gives you a new appreciation for the books you own.
  2. Use the CIP information in the book (on the verso-side of title page or sometimes at the end of book). 
  3. Use the Library of Congress Catalog
  4. Use the OCLC classify

Three formats for book records

Keeping a notebook is the simplest method, but it is by far the least effective. Card catalogs can be fun if you are into the old-school library format and they are very practical if you don’t have an internet connection. But the easiest method to set up and use are spreadsheets. 

  • Notebook
  • Card Catalog
  • Spreadsheets


notebook and pencil

Notebooks are cheap, quick, and easy to set up. But if you are wanting to keep them up efficiently, it’s more difficult than the other two methods. 

If recommend using a three-sectioned notebook.

Label one section authors, one titles, and one subjects. Enter every book you own or purchase, enter once into the first two sections. I recommend marking the pages alphabetically. This will  keep all authors whose last names begin with the letter B together, making them easier to find. 

For the Subject section, I would recommend using the ten Dewey categories for nonfiction and then having a separate section for fiction novels and short story collections.

By now, you probably understand why this method is not recommended. Once you have a list created, it’s difficult to add a book that fits alphabetically between two books on your list. For example, you have a book by J.M. Barrie and you have a book by Lance Berends. You just purchased four by Margaret Battleman. If you don’t have four blank spaces between your Barrie and Berends books, your new Battleman editions will either be squeezed in (untidy) or placed at the end (incorrect). 

Still, this is not a bad place to start if you don’t have the equipment for the next two methods.

Card Catalog

card catalog

Anyone can make a card catalog with index cards, a box to place them in, and  alphabetical dividers which can be purchased at office supply stores. Sometimes it’s possible to pick up old card catalogs from libraries or even purchase small new ones. The issue with those is that regular index cards may not fit the drawers correctly. You can still buy special card catalog cards, but that’s an expensive option.  If you have a card catalog with rods along the bottom, you could punch holes in the index cards which can be messy. You can also the rods cut off or simply remove them. Or you could use a shoe box.  

card catalog example

For every book, write IN PENCIL the general category (also called the call number) in the upper left hand corner with the first three letters of the author’s last name underneath.  This notation tells you where your book is shelved. For more information see “Easy Home Library Organization with the Dewey Decimal System.”

Put the author’s name on the top line: last name, first name,  followed by middle name or initial. The next line should be the title of the book. 

At the bottom of the card write whatever subject you filed the book under. Add any additional subjects under which you think you might like for it. Maybe you have a book on cooking historical Italian recipes. Would that go under cooking or the history of Italy? Since this is your collection, think about how you would use it. Would you primarily use it as cookbook or as a historical reference? Maybe you wouldn’t really use it for either of those.  Instead, you might refer to it as an art source because you are captivated with the illustrator’s artwork. 

Or maybe at different times you will use it for any one of those three purposes. If that’s the case, you could make a note at the bottom for each of those: Cooking, Italian history, Drawings. Now you have your main card. Every book needs two cards with all this information. One will belong in the catalog and one will belong in your shelf list. I’ll explain that one in a minute. 

That’s really all you need on your cards. But if you want, you could include the publisher, copyright date, editors, translators, edition, the price of the book or anything else you think you might need access to. 

Now use a new index card to make a title card. For this one, put the call number in the upper left-hand corner, the title on top, then the author, then the title again. That’s all that’s necessary but add anything else you wish. 

Now you’re ready to make subject cards. On new index cards (one for each subject you chose), put the call number in the upper left-hand corner, one subject on the top line, followed by the author and the title.  For the hypothetical Italian cookbook, you would have Cooking (or cookbook, it’s up to you) on one card, Italian history (or Italy–History) on another, and Drawings (or Art) on top of a third one. These are your subject cards. 

Now simply file all the cards under the correct letter in alphabetical order. A set of alphabetical filing tabs will make this much easier. 

At this point, you can look up the book by its title or by any of the subjects you specified to see where you shelved it. 

Suppose you need to place your hand on your beautifully illustrated historical Italian cookbook, but you don’t have time to look through all 123 cookbooks on your shelf. Whip out your card catalog, look under Italian history and there it is, along with the exact location. 

The shelf list

As I mentioned above, you will want to keep a separate file as a shelf list. For this you need a separate section or a separate box in which to file one card per book. These cards are shelved in order of how they belong on the shelf. So if you have given them Dewey Decimal Classification numbers, they will be shelved from 000-999. It’s handy to buy a set of numbered tabs by 100s for this, or make your own. 

You don’t have to get super specific with your numbers. If you want to do that, you can always look up the exact Dewey number on the Library of Congress catalog or the OCLC classify site. But if you want to just arrange them by the Dewey general categories from my previous blog posts, that’s totally fine! This is your collection, so follow your own rules. If it makes you happy, color code your books and arrange them as your red books (which go in your living room), your blue books (which go in your bedroom), your yellow books (which belong in your study), and your green books (which you shelve in the kitchen). Do it however it makes the most sense to you. 

If you want to really do a deep dive, most libraries use the Sears List of Subject Headings. Libraries with thousands of books need to be precise and uniform in how they classify books. They can’t label some books “cookery” and label others “cookbooks.” Everything needs to be uniform and consistent. Differences are for cross-referencing. You can purchase old copies of Sears List of Subject Headings if your have lots of books and want to be immaculate with your subject categories. But for most home libraries, that’s probably overkill.

card catalog file

Cross-referencing can be useful for any library. Let’s get back to our beautifully-illustrated historical Italian cookbook for a minute. Suppose labeling it under “Drawings” makes you nervous, because some of the illustrations are actually paintings and a few of your favorites are woodcuts. You don’t feel comfortable just shelving this book under “Drawings” because, heaven forbid, what if you are thinking of woodcuts when you decide to look for the book?

This is where cross-referencing is useful. Just make a card that says “Woodcuts see Art” or “Woodcuts see Drawings” or whatever you decided to write on the subject card. These are called cross-reference cards. File them under the letter they begin with. For instance, the “Woodcuts” cards would be filed under “W.”


spreadsheet example

If you have access to a computer and the internet, this is the method I recommend. It’s quick, simple, and saves a lot of steps.

Simply open a sheet on Excel, Google sheets, or whatever spreadsheet application you choose, and make column headings across the top for all these categories:

  1. Shelving category number or words (you could label this Call Number). 
  2. Author (last name first).
  3. Title (beginning articles a, an, the should be at the end. Example Fall of the House of Usher, The).
  4. Subject(s)

The trick for the subjects is that you will need to copy and paste the first three categories onto a new line to change each subject category. See the example above. 

If you want, you can make columns for the publisher, copyright dates, editors, editions, and price.

The advantage to spreadsheets is that there is no need to alphabetize anything.

Make at least two sheets:  

  1.  A shelf list (see below) 
  2. A searchable sheet that can be rearranged and searched as needed

For the searchable sheet, just rearrange it as needed. For example, if you want to find a particular author, do a search of the document for that author name. Just highlight the author column, ask it to arrange A-Z and locate. Or you could just search for the author’s last name.

If you want to find all the books you have on drawing, type it in and they will all come up as long as you have labeled them as drawing books. Highlight the subject column, arrange from A-Z or search for “drawing.”

As an alternative method, say you want to find a book whose title begins with “fall.” That’s all you can remember. No problem. Highlight the title column and ask it to alphabetize.  Scroll down to find the titles that begin with “fall.” If you placed the articles a, an, and the at the end of the titles in your records, this should work great. 

Discarding books

What if you decide to donate some of your books? With spreadsheets, it’s simple. Delete the records. 

For card catalogs, pull the first card you made on the card catalog record. It should be filed under the author’s last name. This will have the title, subjects and shelf list information so those cards can be pulled from each of those as well.

Chances are, if you’re still with me, you are a serious bibliophile. Not everyone will want to go to this amount of work to keep their books organized. And that’s really okay. You know who you are. Just being among your books brings you peace and fulfillment. But for the true booklover, this process would not be a chore, but a hobby worth pursuing on its own. 

To you I say, “Happy Cataloging!”

Sit back and enjoy your organized books


Put up your feet and relax with your favorite beverage. Your books are now well organized, easy to find, and accounted for. Rest assured that you will always be able to quickly locate whatever you need and, who knows, the process may inspire you to revisit some old favorites or (if you’re like me) to read some of your books for the first time. 

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