Building and Organizing a Home Library

You know that I already recommend using LibraryThing to catalog your home library, but how should it be done, and where should you start?

How do you want to organize the books?

First, you need to decide how you want things done. Will you organize by the author’s last name, by genre, or by title? Just about any criterion is acceptable, so long as it works for you. The key is that you have an easier time finding your books, because otherwise, what’s the point?

Personally, I organize by genre. Within the genre, I organize by the author’s last name. And within an author, I organize by publication date. This (usually) keeps series together, which makes it easy to find trilogies and other series. It also gives me some room to expand.

If you organize alphabetically, make sure to leave some space throughout your shelving, otherwise you won’t have any room for new books in the future and will have to shift things around a lot. One of the strengths of the Dewey Decimal System, for instance, is how much space it gives you to expand. Unfortunately, if you have a limited amount of shelving space (like most home libraries do), it just isn’t practical. Take all this into account before you start shelving.

Cataloging the books

Second, you need to get all of the books cataloged so you know in what order they should be arranged on the shelf. Of course, I recommend LibraryThing, but this is where you implement your decisions from the organizational step.

If you’re using a service that has tags, try and keep your tags consistent. It’ll make things harder on you down the road to have some books tagged scifi and some as science fiction. I sometimes find it helpful, especially when adding books later if I haven’t done it in a while, to open up my list of tags and find already established tags to use.

Once you have them cataloged, it’s time to start shelving.

Putting everything away

You’ve probably got books spread out all over the place by this point, but be assured, the cataloging was the hard part. Putting them on the shelves is relatively quick and easy. As I mentioned earlier, leave yourself some room for expansion, maybe a blank shelf at the bottom of each book shelf or room for 1-2 books per shelf, depending on how often/quickly you tend to buy new books.

Moving your library

When we moved in September of 2008, I had to unshelve the carefully arranged 500+ volumes from our bookshelves and transport them to the new location. This is actually easier than you might think, provided you plan ahead.

Though it means using a few more boxes than you might otherwise, you can place books into boxes in the order they were shelved, making it easy to restore them to their rightful places once you’re all moved. I used a bunch of boxes I was able to get from work that printer paper comes in, and I took books off the shelf and put them straight into the box without stacking or wrangling them.

Less books per box meant more boxes, but it also meant they were easier to carry and easier to restore to the shelves. Each box was labeled with the genre and a number, so Fantasy Fiction had 1 through 12, while Young Adult had 1 through 3. Then, I just unboxed them in order where I wanted them on the shelves. This made restoring our library a lot easier and faster than it otherwise would have been.

Share your stories

What tricks do you have for accomplishing what is sometimes a monumental task? How did you setup your home library?

I hope this series has been helpful for you. I’m certainly glad I was able to write it, as taking a more in-depth view at these three cataloging services has made me appreciate my own setup all the more. Now, I think it’s time to actually go do some reading ^_^

LibraryThing Reviewed


As I have mentioned, I’ve been using LibraryThing for a while and it is certainly my favourite, but today I’ll try to take a more objective look at the service by applying the same rubrick I’ve used in the previous two reviews.


LibraryThing is the only one of the three where I have added an extensive list of books by searching for them one by one. I did a few test books on Shelfari and Goodreads to get a feel for how they would work and they all felt fairly similar. The difference is that LibraryThing, unlike the other two, actually pulls from something other than

In addition to searching, LibraryThing can also query the Library of Congress and its extensive collection. Furthermore, LibraryThing has been adopted by a number of libraries (the full list is well over 600 library catalogs entered, just not every library is using LibraryThing as their main system), and the more books added to LibraryThing, the greater the potential that your book will have already been put into the system. This means that adding books is faster because there is less manual entry.

Goodreads and Shelfari also query books entered by users, but their user base (and subsequent catalogs) are much smaller. On the downside, Ryan tells me that if your book isn’t found when using LibraryThing, you have to manually select libraries to search from, and that can be a huge pain. I’ve been talking with some people in the LibraryThing community about this, but haven’t come to any good conclusions on how to resolve the issue yet.

The site speed has improved recently with some database server and memory server additions, and I’ve been greatly impressed. Previously, I would have ranked it lower on speed, but the new servers have made a noticeable difference. Adding books now is much faster than before, and the site is very responsive.

In regards to editing books, LibraryThing beats the other two hands down, but I’ll talk more about that in regards to Organization. Editing books is an order of magnitude better and faster with LibraryThing.


LibraryThing is the only online management system of the three that has an actual mobile version of their service. To be honest, I hadn’t used it in a while on account of not buying many books recently, but it’s just as fast as before.

While mobile stylesheets tend to be very barebones and unattractive, they do make things significantly faster on smartphones and the like, so accessing my library and performing searches was significantly faster than Goodreads. Of course, none of this was even possible on Shelfari.

I was able to get in and search for a book in my library in mere seconds. I could even get to my listing of the book and see what tags I had assigned it, its ISBN, publication date, and Dewey Decimal Number (very handy if you’re trying to find a book in an older brick-and-mortar library).


LibraryThing shines when it comes to organization because it is simply so much more powerful than the other two services. The aspect I’ll mention here, to which I alluded earlier, is in editing books.

Quick Editing

Quick Edit

Though you can’t see my mouse cursor in the above screenshot, I was hovered over the tags panel in a table displaying my books. Double click on any of the fields to make them editable, then change whatever you like and hit a save button. You’re done; all fields displayed are editable, it’s fast, and it’s intuitive. It’s simply the easiest way to quickly modify basic information about a book.

For extensive or more advanced information, you can still click on a book and edit just about all of the information about it, which I prefer. Shelfari only lets you put in a few notes, and Goodreads requires that you be approved as a librarian before editing data. This is likely because all of their books are stored in a single place centrally, while LibraryThing has a powerful system that can handle combinations.

Power Editing

Power Editing

One of my criticisms with Shelfari and Goodreads was the inability to modify multiple books at once. If your library is more than a dozen or so books, I feel like this feature is absolutely crucial, and its oversight in Shelfari and Goodreads somewhat surprised me.

Power Editing in LibraryThing allows you to apply changes to multiple books at once, and while not every field can be modified this way, the most important ones can. If you’ve got a large library to organize, I can’t imagine the frustration and tediousness you would experience without having a feature like this.

Customized Views

You can set five styles in which to view your books, though I usually just set one and don’t change it. More important to me is the ability to organize my books how I like and how I have them on my bookshelves.

The process goes like this:

  1. Search my tags for fantasy -young, which returns results for all books tagged fantasy (fiction) but that are not tagged young (adult).
  2. Click on the date column so the oldest books are displayed first. This column represents publication date, not the date the book was added to the library.
  3. Click on the author column to organize them by last name.

I am now presented with all of my fantasy fiction novels, excluding those that are in our young adult section, organized by author (alphabetically by last name) and secondarily by publication date. This is how we have them on our shelves, which makes it easier for me to find a book.

You simply don’t have the same level of tagging, customization, or ability to view your books in the other systems. In LibraryThing, I tell it how I want to see my library. Shelfari and Goodreads try to dictate to me how it should look.

So many reasons to love, but not for everyone

There are a lot of other features in LibraryThing that I couldn’t imagine doing without now. A librarian friend of mine observed that its API is open and very good, which allows people to do a lot with the site including using it in actual libraries. The community around the site is strong and extensive, and I’m a member of the Early Reviewers group, which allows me to enter into a lottery every month to receive a free book either before its publication or soon after (for which I would write a review).

I’ll admit that LibraryThing is written by certain people and for certain people. I can’t put a label on those groups though, as they’re fairly ambiguous. A diverse group of people use the service, so it’s not just written to coders or librarians (or some mix of the two), but it feels a lot like other developer-centric software I’ve used where it was written with the coders rather than the users in mind.

However, I don’t find it difficult, and neither does my wife. And I know a lot of people who use it with abounding joy. It’s simply the best tool for the job.

Get What You Pay For

LibraryThing is not exactly free, unlike Shelfari and Goodreads. You can add up to 200 books for free, so if your library is small, there’s no reason not to use LibraryThing. For more than 200 books, there is a $10 a year or $25 lifetime fee. I gladly put $25 down after adding our first hundred books because LibraryThing is just that great.

It’s the cost of taking a date to a movie to use a great library for life (at least the life of the site, which looks to be very stable and healthy). And I also believe in investing in good services, so I had no qualms paying for LibraryThing.

Final Grade: A

  1. Needs to be relatively fast. | B
    1. Speed/ease of adding books. | B
    2. General site speed. | B
    3. Speed/ease of editing books. | A
  2. Must be online, but furthermore must be mobile accessible so I can access my library from the bookstore to see if I already own something. | A
  3. Should be displayable by how I organize my books on the shelf (Genre -> Author alphabetically by last name -> Publication date) so that I can better find things in my physical library. | A

I was little torn over what grade to give LibraryThing. I’m hesitant to give it an A because it simply isn’t perfect, but then again, nothing ever will be. But it’s also head and shoulders above anything else, particularly in regards to tagging, quickly editing, and organizing your books.

As I began writing my justification for an A-/B+ grade, I realized how true I felt the previous sentence to be. If Goodreads is a B, then LibraryThing is clearly an A in my book. The fact that it costs money might disqualify LibraryThing from your own list of software to consider, in which case I definitely recommend Goodreads. But if organizing, expanding, and maintaining your library is your top concern, money not being as much of an issue, I would most certainly recommend LibraryThing.

Goodreads Reviewed


As before, I imported my library from LibraryThing to give me some data to work with. Though I’d heard about Goodreads before, I hadn’t messed with it any, and now that I’ve done so, I’d like to see what happens when I use the rubrick I established for these reviews.


Goodreads is pretty quick, both with adding and finding books. As with Shelfari, the only options you have when searching are those books already entered into Goodreads and, but the interface feels more clean and I had no problem finding my test books.

Unfortunately, import did not go so well. What Shelfari handled in a matter of seconds, Goodreads took over 35 minutes to import. I don’t know what took so long, and after it finished, it had left thirty-one books out. Admittedly, this is less than Shelfari left out, but Shelfari also told me which books it had dropped. Goodreads just failed without telling me which books it hadn’t been able to record.

As for editing books, it’s a bit slower than Shelfari in that I have to click a link rather than hover over the book, but I’m OK with that. What I’m not OK with is the way Goodreads handles tagging.

Rather than tags, Goodreads uses “shelves,” which are pretty much the same thing… except you can’t just type them into a list. You have to use a drop down menu, and then either add new shelves or click a check box to apply shelves/tags.

On LibraryThing, I have probably around 500 unique tags (a total of 2,663 tags used on books, but that’s with a lot of duplicates). Imagine scrolling through that in a drop down menu. I also often like to apply the same tags to books in a series, so not being able to copy and paste a line of tags/text is frustrating.

Like Shelfari, there’s no mass editing of books; I can’t apply similar changes to multiple books.


Again, Goodreads is obviously online or else it would not be part of these reviews, but how does it stack up in the mobile arena?

While it doesn’t have a dedicated mobile version, their website isn’t near as bloated or poorly designed as Shelfari (measuring in at about 1/4 the size per page). It runs decently on Windows Mobile in Internet Explorer, to the extent that it is usable. It’s 300+ kb size is a bit much for non-3G phones, and it’s not optimized for mobile browsers, but it actually works pretty decently.

I could log in, access my library, and search for books, which was pretty exciting to see.


As I mentioned earlier, tagging/shelving is a failure to me on Goodreads. However, once you have shelved books, you can view just that shelf and then order them by author’s last name, the title, or the publication date, so that’s decent. You just have to resign yourself to having very few tags/shelves or else the system will become unmanageable.

I can’t imagine using Goodreads to organize a sizable library (beyond a few hundred books). But if you’re the type to only have a few tags/shelves, it’ll work just fine.


It’s worth mentioning that Goodreads is just plain pretty. It’s pleasant to browse around, though I don’t feel like there’s much to browse. It’s well-designed, and I enjoyed using it for testing. Goodreads is certainly easy on the eyes.

Final Grade: B

  1. Needs to be relatively fast. | B
    1. Speed/ease of adding books. | B
    2. General site speed. | B
    3. Speed/ease of editing books. | C
  2. Must be online, but furthermore must be mobile accessible so I can access my library from the bookstore to see if I already own something. | B
  3. Should be displayable by how I organize my books on the shelf (Genre -> Author alphabetically by last name -> Publication date) so that I can better find things in my physical library. | C+

On speed/ease of editing books, not being able to edit multiple books at one time will never earn anything above a C. When handling anything beyond a dozen books, I feel this is crucial.

I gave the organization a C+ because it would allow me to see general shelf location decently, but the way it handles tagging isn’t scalable and therefore doesn’t suit me well.

Goodreads is Good

In general, Goodreads is pretty decent, and if you’re looking for a free service, I imagine it’s the best you can do. That sounds somewhat snide, but I really mean it when I say that Goodreads is good. I was pleasantly surprised by this service, and would recommend it to people who are looking for a free and easy way to organize their home library, provided they didn’t have more than a few hundred books (say, no more than 300 probably).

On Monday, I’ll talk about my personal favourite, LibraryThing, which does have a fee involved (for anything beyond 200 books), but which I feel is well worth it.

Shelfari Reviewed


I only heard about Shelfari recently when a friend of mine began his own search for a cataloging solution for his home library. He was enamored with Shelfari at first due to its speed and attractiveness, but I just couldn’t stomach this site. Nevertheless, the mere fact that it is (now) owned and ran by demands we give it some credence, so let’s begin the review.


Since I’ve already got all of my books in LibraryThing, it was easy to provide a good test-bed in Shelfari by exporting them in a tab-delimited format and bringing them over. The site is decently fast and importing my books was a snap that took next to no time at all, which is always nice.

Unfortunately, Shelfari couldn’t find all of my books. Because Shelfari only works with, its catalog is fairly limited, so expect to do some manual entry. In my case, there were over 60 books it couldn’t find, and the only option it presented me was to select from a list of other books on Amazon. On the plus side, it did tell me which books failed to be imported so I could go back and add them manually.

If you want to add a book, just search for it (which searches Amazon), hover over it, and click add. The site is stuffed with AJAXy goodness, so hover does a lot here in some very cool ways. As such things go, adding a book is decent. Editing is not.

To edit a book, you have to hover over each one, click a couple of different places, and type, and the only parameters you can set is a tag (by which you cannot organize; only used for browsing) and the date you read the book. Kind of clunky and weak.


Of course, all three pass this test by default, but how’s Shelfari on mobile browsers? I don’t have an iPhone or 3G (though it seems most every site supports those now, mostly because it’s not a standard “mobile browser,” but rather an almost full-feature web browser), so a truly mobile version is a must for me.

Shelfari’s heavy interface comes at a price. It renders completely uselessly on a mobile phone, and no mobile version has been announced (though users have been discussing and asking for it for five months now).


This simply doesn’t exist in Shelfari, as far as I’m concerned. You can tag things, but you cannot search by tag. Rather, tags are displayed at the bottom of your shelf, and you can click on one to display books that have been tagged with that word. Worthless.

Cover View and Marketing

From what I can tell, these are the only two things that Shelfari really offers. Being owned by Amazon, there are advertisements all over the place, and I really feel like the site only exists for Amazon to try and get their hat in the home library game and make a few bucks.

If you want a pretty view of all your book covers on a digital bookshelf, Shelfari will do that. Unfortunately, that’s about all it does, and I consider Cover View to be completely worthless on any cataloging site. I’ve never seen it implemented in a fashion I can use, which would be actually displaying books as they would be on my shelf, with the spines facing towards me. That would be a useful tool to help me find books on their shelves, but what every site does just doesn’t serve any purpose other than as eye candy.

Final Grade: D

  1. Needs to be relatively fast. | C
    1. Speed/ease of adding books. | B
    2. General site speed. | B
    3. Speed/ease of editing books. | D
  2. Must be online, but furthermore must be mobile accessible so I can access my library from the bookstore to see if I already own something. | D-
  3. Should be displayable by how I organize my books on the shelf (Genre -> Author alphabetically by last name -> Publication date) so that I can better find things in my physical library. | F

Since it’s not mobile at all, number 2 maybe should be an F, but it is online so I’ll give it something. Shelfari scores a D, but there’s no way I would use it or recommend it to anyone.

Check back on Friday to read about Goodreads, which is nominally more positive.

Finding the right way to organize your books

Pile o'books

A couple of years ago, I read an article on Slashdot that asked the question, “How do you solve the home library problem?” A lot of people chimed in and, while following the ensuing discussion, I became intrigued. I’d always considered organizing my home library, but had never gotten around to it, and now my lack of organization was having negative repercussions.

I’d already found one book where I owned multiple copies, having forgotten that I owned it and therefore purchased it again. And I often found myself unable to find a book, having lost it somewhere among all the different shelves and stacks of novels littered around my apartment. Though it was a mess, it was a mess that made me happy because it was a bunch of books, but it was also time consuming and causing me to waste money.

So, I read through all the comments on the Slashdot article, investigated a few options, and settled on LibraryThing. I say “settled,” though that’s not really accurate; I really like LibraryThing, and enjoy using it a great deal. But in the last two (almost three now) years, I haven’t looked at any cataloging alternatives.

This article begins a short series where I will review three online library cataloging web sites. I’m leaving out Delicious Library because one of my requirements (which I’ll discuss shortly) was that it be online and subsequently accessible from most anywhere, but I’ve heard that DL is really great. So, we’ll talk about Shelfari, Goodreads, and LibraryThing.

Requirements for my cataloging system:

  1. Needs to be relatively fast.
    1. Speed/ease of adding books.
    2. General site speed.
    3. Speed/ease of editing books.
  2. Must be online, but furthermore must be mobile accessible so I can access my library from the bookstore to see if I already own something.
  3. Should be displayable by how I organize my books on the shelf (Genre -> Author alphabetically by last name -> Publication date) so that I can better find things in my physical library.

I’ll inform you of my bias now: After using LibraryThing for more than two years, I could add a half dozen other requirements to that list of features that I’m not willing to live without anymore, but those three were really all I was looking for when I first began my search. Therefore, to be fair, I’ll limit it to those and expound on the extras in the individual posts after the review.

Once the three reviews are completed, I’ll write an article with some recommendations on how you can best build and organize your home library. I’m not a librarian, by any means, but I’ve been messing with this for a while and want to share what I’ve found. I hope you’ll return over the next week and maybe learn something as well.

Image by: lusi


  • We have 510 books now (though I still have a few more, primarily textbooks, to add to the catalog).
  • The oldest book is 149 years old. The youngest was published in 2008.
  • We acquired 40 books this month (primarily at the book sale last Saturday at Well Fed Head).
  • Three of our books are only listed by one other person on LibraryThing.
  • I have read 236 of our books, and have 213 yet to read.
  • Fantasy Fiction is the largest genre in our library, accounting for 194 of our novels.
  • We have 11 Bibles, 2 of which are in Hebrew.
  • We have retained 23 of our textbooks (not counting the 10-20 I still need to add to the catalog later today).
  • So far, I’ve only done 1.5 bookshelves, and it has taken 9 boxes. I still have about 2.5-3 bookshelves to go.