I went to visit my best friend from college and fell in love — with her library. It was meticulously organized, yet outright pretty, with cascading shelves of hardcovers in coordinating colors. 

I thought it looked like something out of a magazine, or a home staged for sale. Yet I knew from experience she had read and touched and discussed every one of these books, often with me. It made me long for the home library of my fantasies, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and a tall ladder on wheels like the ones at Powell’s Books in Portland.

Seattleites are particular about our books. We’ve consistently ranked as one of the nation’s best-read, most-literate cities. We love our books and our libraries like we love our coffee and our rain. Some have abandoned physical books in favor of e-books or Kindles, but devotees of the printed page are many. Curling up with a book for an unhurried, indefinite amount of time is one of our greatest pleasures.

But how to store all these books? The innocent question can elicit wildly varying and occasionally opinionated responses online and off. So I asked the people who organize books for a living — a librarian, several interior designers and a professional organizer — as well as a few plain old booklovers like me, how they organize their home libraries.

What does your bookcase say about you? 

It’s true that people may draw conclusions about you from your books (or lack thereof). One of these people might be you. Jean Prominski, a professional organizer and owner of Seattle Sparkle, says, “A good home library is comprised of only books someone loves, not books they ‘should have’ or ‘should’ read. That guilt is no fun at all.” 

Penny Hummel, a public library consultant in Portland, says, “People want to look important with their books, [but] it should be a reflection of you and what you’re interested in, not a fantasy about yourself.


“Books are part of what creates the soul of a home,” she says. “They’re more than a decorative object. I’m a real believer in reading your collection.”

Hummel says it’s all about being intentional with what you have. 

“You have to be thoughtful about your environment and what’s in there,” she says. “It’s like your closet: If you don’t take out what doesn’t fit you anymore, it’s hard to find what you really want.” 

Hummel has applied Marie Kondo’s KonMari method to books, asking, “Is this a happy memory?”

Prominski says about half her book clients want to downsize their collection. The other half want to keep them all.

“I help them categorize and place them on the shelves so they can find them later,” she says. “Sometimes … we will create labels for the shelves so they can find the category of book they are looking for.


“A few of my clients are writers and researchers and need to reference a lot of books often. In this case, I have helped them create a database of the books that contain several categories they may be looking for, along with the location where the books are stored.”

Leave room to grow

Rebecca Rowland, who owns Rebecca Rowland Interiors in Seattle, approaches the design of a library with the idea that it’s a living, growing part of your family. “We want to give it room for all the stacks you might pick up over the years, but make sure it looks great in the meantime,” she says.

From a practical viewpoint, Hummel explains, “In library land, we try not to cram books because that makes it hard to get them in and out.”

Before deciding how to organize your books, examine the why. Prominski asks clients a lot of questions about which books are important to them, and when and why they would look for them.

“Once I learn what their needs and challenges are,” she says, “it helps me determine the best way to organize.” 

Hummel recommends these specific questions:

• How do I use this book?

• Does this have an aesthetic value that I’d like highlighted in my home to set it apart?


• How do your books relate to the other beloved objects in your home?

• What are creative ways to mix it up so it’s visually appealing as well as being useful?

Put books where you’ll use them

“We love to provide built-in storage for books right where you actually need them, such as keeping those cookbooks in the kitchen,” says Jeff Pelletier of design firm Board & Vellum in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “When you’re in the thick of it, if your kitchen library isn’t right at hand, you’re simply not going to reference it.” 

Board & Vellum created bookshelves for a local chef who wanted to be able to access and display cookbooks in a way that celebrated their variety.

Hummel notes how hotels use books as décor, tying a used-book collection into the theme of a locale. She chose a Nancy Drew mystery, “The Hidden Staircase,” to highlight a pull-down ladder leading to an attic in her beach house.

Intentional bookcase design can establish a tone. Board & Vellum designed a hallway in a Snohomish estate with built-in bookshelves in lit cabinets with glass doors, Pelletier says.


“This is a hallway leading to a shared room for two kids, off of which each child has their own bedroom,” he says. “The intent is that as the kids travel down the hall to their space, the focus is on reading, not on digital devices. They can peruse the hallway library as they are winding down, pick out books, then transition to their shared space together before moving on to bed.”

Rowland says, “It’s OK to look at your books as decoration in your home and library. If you’ve read the book, it can be a comfort just knowing that old friend is there.”

She designed a lower-level library in a farmhouse in Duvall. Some of the books in her client’s collection were not aesthetically pleasing and not going to be needed at a moment’s notice, “so we arranged them facing spine-in to give a more homogenous feel to the lower shelves, while some of the books on the upper shelves become a part of the décor spine-out.”

Resources like Juniper Books can be used to style home libraries with collections in matching covers, antique leather book sets and books by the yard.

What about all those books you haven’t read yet? I have a separate bookcase with a queue of books I’ve yet to read. This is because I consistently buy more books than I ever have time to read. My thought was that by creating a bookshelf of alluring books I chose for myself, the next time I want to buy a new one, I will go there first to shop my own collection, the way you shop your pantry for dinner to save money. 

It hasn’t worked yet. 

But because I organized them separately, I know they’re there, waiting for me to reach for them when I’m ready. 


Organizing your books

What’s the best way to organize your collection into a usable, eye-catching library?

“This really depends on the person. There is no ‘right’ way to organize books,” Prominski says. “I do love looking at a beautifully organized bookshelf that’s organized by color, but that’s really not practical for everyone. Writers and researchers who need to reference their books on a regular basis are probably better off organizing their books by category, and then alphabetically within those categories.”

Hummel says, “I know librarians who organize their home libraries by the Dewey decimal system, but I am not one of them. That said, I do have my books organized quite intentionally by topic.”

Other methods include:

By color. Color is what drew me into my college friend’s library. She placed all of her hardback books together, stripped them of their covers and arranged them by color. It looks clean and elegant and feels timeless. Some take this to the next level and create intentional rainbows on their shelves, from top to bottom.

By topic. Many people organize their fiction by author, but nonfiction by subject matter or category. Then they arrange those by height to make them look good on the shelf. A travel section serves as a happy reminder of where you’ve been and where you want to go.

By author. Alphabetically is a familiar system, as it’s how we would find them in sections of a library or bookstore. Favorite authors get their own shelves, and sometimes full bookcases!

By favorites. Powell’s Books features employees’ favorite books throughout the store. I place my favorites front and center, too. Occasionally, guests have noticed them, which has sparked engaging conversations. 

Outside-the-box ideas. Barnes & Noble’s in-store banned book display makes a statement, and the sometimes-surprising titles provide a certain conversation piece. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, organizes its books alphabetically by the author’s first name, reflecting the archives’ founding during the feminist movement of the 1970s.