I’m republishing (and updating with new information) some of our older blog posts that seem like they deserve a little more love. This one was originally published in 2016.
I have a problem: Our library is out of control. I don’t mind the bookcases taking over our house, but I hate when I discover a book that I bought for a particular subject but forgot about until months after we wrapped up studying that subject—or worse, when I buy a book only to find that I already own a copy of it. Is there any way to organize our homeschool library so that it’s a resource and not a headache?
The key to useful and accessible homeschool library: Good organization. If you want to wrangle your book collection into a well-organized library, you’re going to have to get hands-on. Here’s how:
Start by making an inventory. I know! It’s a huge project. It’s dusty and messy — and it’s probably not something you can accomplish in a single afternoon. But it is the only place to start if you really want to organize your library. Start a list of all the books in your collection—I use index cards, but you could set up an Excel spreadsheet or use a tool like LibraryThing instead. (If you have a lot of newer books, LibraryThing has an app that scans book barcodes to instantly upload their information, which is pretty convenient.)
As you sort, you may find books that you can discard or give away — I hear this happens sometimes, though I’ve not personally experienced it. If you uncover books you can part with, trade them in a used bookstore for more books, drop them off at your homeschool group’s free pile, or donate them to your favorite thrift shop. (You can try to sell high-quality or expensive books you’re ready to let go of.)
Catalog your books. A list of books is great, but you really want to make it easy to find books about, say, Egyptian history and mythology or the California gold rush when you want them, right? Tag your books with labels to help you sort them. With my index cards, I create subject cards where I list books I own in a particular subject—medieval history, coming-of-age novels, dinosaurs, etc. (Some subjects require more than one card, some books go onto multiple cards, and I jot new titles as we acquire them.) In Excel, designate a field for tags. The idea is to create a simple system that will remind you what books you have on any subject when you want to find them, so it’s better to err on the side of extra tags — that way, when you hit search, you’re more likely to actually find what you are looking for.
Shelve your books. Lots of homeschoolers have more books than shelf space. To deal, “shelve” subject-specific groups of books in plastic bins, and label your bin with the subject (Japan, biology, astronomy, etc.) and a list of the books inside. (I think this is easiest with a bin per subject, but of course you can lump subjects together if you prefer.) Then note which books are binned — I fold a sticky flag over the right corner of my index cards, or you can change the color of binned books in your spreadsheet or just leave yourself a note.) Then, when you’re ready to tackle a particular subject, all your books are ready in one place. For the books that go on your shelves, sort them by author, subject, or size, and note where to find them. (My daughter’s Warrior Cat books are shelved as O-1, cluing me in that they’re on the first bookshelf in her room, while our Story of the World collection is in the foyer bookcase: F.)
Keep it organized. For this system to work long-term, you have to be vigilant about updating it every time you add a new book to your collection. At our house, new books go into a holding box, and they’re considered unavailable until they’ve been cataloged and shelved—otherwise, they’d drift off with a happy reader and vanish from our records. I don’t love having to move things around in the garage to add a single volume to our U.S. History bin, but I do love the fact that when we need our U.S. History collection, it’s easy to find and enjoy.