The Secret to Maximizing Shelf Space – Book Triage

Secret to maximizing shelf space - book triage
Van Gogh Museum – Three Books, 1887

If you have unlimited shelf space in your personal library, you can stop reading now. But, if you’re like most of us and reach the end of your shelf space before the end of the book stack, this is for you. There’s one simple approach that’s helped me more than anything else in maximizing shelf space – a book triage system.

Triage was developed on the battlefields of France during the First World War as way of classifying injured soldiers into three categories by urgency of need. The system saved many lives by ensuring those who would most benefit from medical care received it as soon as possible. When organizing books, admittedly a much less serious matter than battlefield injuries, the idea is to categorize them by frequency of use. I use these three categories:

  • Archive Collection
  • General Collection
  • Reference Collection

Archive Collection

These are books I rarely reference. These don’t get precious shelf space. I’m not talking here about collectible, sentimental or rare books that may be displayed but not often used but “regular” books you don’t want to get rid of because they are occasionally helpful. For these books, I store them out of sight (mostly!) somewhere. Just be sure the place you store them is climate and humidity controlled and that they are stacked or packed carefully. Under a bed works well  when space is at a premium but be sure to put them in something to keep them dust free.

Also, don’t forget the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” It will be very easy to let this collection balloon to an unmanageable number. This really should be books you sometimes need. I know this is blasphemy for some bibliophiles but you don’t have to keep every book forever. Don’t hesitate to pass volumes not fitting this description on to others – a used book shop, your local library, etc. After all, just because you never use the book, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. Make it possible for them to do so.

General Collection

These books are the ones I use frequently. These get the most shelf space.  With the exception of collectible books, the majority of my bookcases are stocked with volumes in this category – things like Bible commentaries, favorite volumes of poetry, Christian apologetics, and history. It also includes books on things I’m learning or need to learn such as teaching skills, foreign languages, writing, etc. These are organize by type, as I covered in a earlier post.

I usually find myself using the books in this collection several times a year. Periodically, it’s good to review your general books to see if any of them need to be moved to the archive or reference collection.

Reference Collection

The title here is a bit deceiving. This is not just reference books in the pure sense, dictionaries and the like (though several in this category will be that), but books that are referenced frequently. If I tend to reach for a book multiple times a week or even a month, I put it in this category. These are kept in a small bookcase within arms length of my desk.

Currently this collection contains:

  • The Oxford Large Print Dictionary (getting older is no fun)
  • Roget’s Thesaurus
  • Two systematic theologies (Grudem’s and Horton’s)
  • How to Read A Book by Mortimer Adler
  • A couple of investing books
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen
  • The One Page Project Manager by Clark A. Campbell
  • Strunk & White’s Elements of Style

A final book in this category is my Bible but rather than being on the reference shelf, it stays on my desk or in my book bag since it is used more places than just my office.

One final thing. These categories are by no means permanent designations for your books. Feel free to move them among the categories at will. The main thing is to be sure you have available to you the books you need when you need them.

What are some ways you organize your books for maximum usefulness?

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