The Kitten in the Bookcase


Our new kitten, Rue, sitting on top of a shelf in the “Slavery and Freedom” section of my library. This post was totally not just an excuse to use this photo.[1]

A few months ago my partner and I moved to a new apartment, for the first time since I began living in New York full-time. The best part of moving to me, for purely selfish reasons, was it created an opportunity to fully reorganize my library for the first time in three years. Our old apartment was much smaller than our current place which left my ever-growing doctoral candidate’s library relegated to one and a half bookshelves. This led to all kinds of organizational chaos and housecleaning headaches – with books tucked away in closets, stacked on desks, piled in corners.  Many times while writing I found myself looking for a book for a reference or citation say, for example, my copy of Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (which always seems to vanish) and I knew, for the life of me, that I had the book somewhere in the apartment, but had no way to even begin to find it without tearing the place apart. At the new apartment I have, thanks to my partner’s beneficence, the space to fully store my library in real bookcases and in some sort of proper organizational scheme.

But the question was: what sort of organizational scheme? There were so many options to choose from – chronological, thematic, by title, by author. The world of library organization was my oyster! I took about two weeks to plot the whole thing out, step by step.[2]


A shelf of the “Virginia” section of my library.

The approach I went with is relatively idiosyncratic.

I have a bottomless disdain for organizing things alphabetically, by either title or author, so I decided to take a thematic and chronological approach.[3] I also wanted to make the books I would be using for my dissertation research and writing the most easily accessible. The first thing I did, then, was create three sections – “Religion,” “Revolution/Early Republic,” and “Chesapeake” – and put them in the far right side of my bookcase. This has really worked out. It is great, for example, having my copy of Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia right next to John Nelson’s A Blessed Company.

After this I proceeded to organize the rest of my monographs and other histories into their own thematic categories – “Colonial,” “Slavery and Freedom,” “Progressivism,” etc. – in descending order of importance to my research.[4] This system worked out well but left a couple of nagging issues.


A shelf of my primary sources and readers

First among these were what to do with the various published primary sources and readers that I use for teaching. Over the last three years of teaching I’d acquired a whole variety of these sorts of teaching aids. I could, of course, sort them under their thematic header. My copy, for example, of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France could go with my books on the Enlightenment, conservatism, or the French Revolution. That choice, however, didn’t make sense to me. I decided, instead, to sort all of my primary sources together for I seldom just needed one of these books at a time.


A stack of books that I purchased at my last trip to Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia. [5]

All in all my idiosyncratic library organization has worked out well so far. There is one problem, however, which should be familiar to any academic and/or book lover. I keep acquiring more and more damn books. These books, of course, need to be sorted and added into my library. Inertia and a hatred of shifting books, born out of years and year working at bookstores, always delays this process for months. This is a minor problem, of course.

I want, in the end, to ask a question of The Junto readership. How do you, friends and colleagues, organize your library, either in your office and/or your home?

[1] Yes it was.

[2] You can see the chaos that was the process of unloading and sorting my books here.

[3] My disdain for alphabetical—or for that matter numerical—organization is drawn from a late-teenage summer spent working for a comic book store where I helped organize, in an un-air conditioned Virginia warehouse, over two thousand long boxes of comics into alphanumeric order.

[4] This means books on the 20th century are on the far left of my bookshelf.

[5] I have a book buying problem.

14 responses

  1. I don’t go strictly alphabetical either. If they were assigned, they’re kept together. If they’re unrelated to the dissertation, they have a separate section. I’m debating rearranging them again since it’s been a long time since the original sort and I have lots of new books.

  2. I’m now twenty years past the dissertation and married to an academic. Talk about books! Mine are topically organized as well. I like High Heels comment about books assigned together. I have some books that have been together on my shelf since college. It seems cruel and unusual to separate them! Best thing I ever did for my books was invest in a software program to catalog them. I’m at the point where I don’t always remember if I have something…..

    • What software do you use, if you don’t mind me asking?
      I keep the books I have on the shelf organized thematically, but about half of my collection of books (fiction and non-fiction) is in storage due to lack of space.

      • I use Book Collectorz ( . It was developed by a Dutch company that also makes software for movie, comic, and music collectors. A basic copy (the one I have) costs $30. If you want to use their cloud to store your files (and access on iphone or android) the monthly fee is a couple of bucks. I’ve used the software for about a decade. Never had a problem. Tech support for questions is fast and good. Last week I added book #2418 to the data base.

  3. Organized alphabetically by author’s last name, with some exceptions. Historiography books, volumes of published papers (e.g., The Papers of Andrew Jackson), textbooks for teaching, and conspiracy-themed books are separated out. I also invested in Readerware to keep track of books I own–much easier than a 100-pg. Word document (usually).

  4. I organize mine thematically, generally by shelf. And I mean thematic, very broadly speaking. For example, I have a shelf dedicated to essay collections, one for Jefferson, one for Harvard historians (Bailyn, Wood, Maier, etc….), one for slavery, one for gender, one for non-academic works, etc…. And within those I don’t order them alphabetically, I just keep all those books by a single author together. My one concession to kitsch is my complete 1952 set of The Great Books of the Western World which my college Latin teacher gave me as a graduation gift. And that gets its own entire bookcase. 😉

    All that said, at this point, I now have twice as many ebooks as I do physical books. Tons of books in PDF, but also a lot of epubs and mobis.

  5. I recently moved as well, and am still trying to work out my ideal book arrangement. I started out thematically, but I ended up having so many different sections that I lost track of where they all were. Right now I have a few loose sections I would describe as relevant history (things related to my coursework/exam fields), less relevant, but still citable history, textbooks and reference works, primary source collections, books written prior to 1800, historiography, and popular history/biography that I probably wouldn’t cite but like to have around. I also have a smaller bookshelf just for books from the library so I don’t lose them in the chaos. Books are organized alphabetically by author within each section with some exceptions, as as others have noted some books just shouldn’t be separated. My non-history books live in the living room or other places in the house. Once I’m past exams and writing the dissertation all this will probably change, however, and I’m constantly forgetting what books I have as ebooks. Maybe I should look into this organizational software!

  6. We use EndNote for an electronic catalog and shelve everything by Library of Congress catalog number (written on labels and taped to the spines, no less). Fiction isn’t in the catalog, though, and is organized by author’s last name.

  7. I tend to organize by denomination. But within that putting books and text i use regularly close to one and other so I dont have to travel far (also placed as close to the kettle as I can get it so I can read over things as the kettle boils). I also try and organize the denominations along a theological line with Catholics and Anglicans on one end and Methodist and Baptists on the other.

  8. I seem to organize my books in a strange cross between themes, book size, and order of purchase… Or as I like to call it, an organized mess. In my five years since I moved to Québec, I’ve only reorganized my books in strict order of themes twice. Within those themes, I’ll group my books from most to least important to my research. Besides that, no order whatsoever. I pity whoever needs to go through my bookshelves…

  9. I organize my books loosely chronologically. I have four bookshelves- one for colonial, one for Revolutionary and early Republic, one for 19th and 20th century, and one that’s current research, library books and material culture.

    Then each shelf has its own theme- for colonial I have Native American, Puritans, Great Awakening, Slavery, etc… Within each shelf the books are organized by size, which not only makes the space on each shelf more efficient, it also looks nicer and has the added benefit of being inspired by early modern libraries.

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  11. I just can’t wait till I’m back in the states and can save the 30 boxes of books that have been perishing away in a dusty storage shed for the last five years. I feel like a negligent father.

  12. I saw the photo of your books and I was squinting to try to read all the titles. Do you have a goodreads or librarything? I’m hoping to get some ideas on interesting new books to add to my collection.


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