Over the years, I’ve managed to amass quite a library of design, photography, and art books alongside my treasured cookbooks, novels, and random printed matter that continues to inspire. The shelf that Sara first organized has become four packed-to-the-top rolling shelves that now inspire an entire company. We were recently discussing the best way to archive these books that we can continue to loan them out—but also keep the collection intact, when it occurred to me that libraries all over the world have already invented  pretty intricate systems for organizing books. Why reinvent the wheel – or, in this case, the card catalog…

As I began to read more on library classifications, I discovered there are two systems that seem to be most frequently employed by libraries: the Dewey Decimal Classification and the Library of Congress system. Both systems allow books to be classified in very specific, detailed ways. They just approach their systems of organization a little differently.

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is a library classification system created by Melvil Dewey in the late 1800s. What made the Dewey Classification unique was the introduction of the idea that books should be grouped together based on subject matter. The decimal system structure allows us to drill down deeper into a subject matter, making room for more and more specific and specialized book topics; the fractional decimals allow categorization into as much detail as necessary. Finding books – and returning them to their proper spot – became almost a science.

Before the Dewey system was widely adopted, many libraries used a fixed positioning system where books were placed on the shelf based on the book’s height and date of acquisition. Because early libraries were not always open to the public, “browsing” stacks wasn’t encouraged; only privileged patrons and employees looked at the shelves. The Dewey Decimal Classification ultimately made libraries more accessible to the public, because patrons were able to search for books on their own.


The classification structure is hierarchical and each category is represented by numbers beginning with 000 and ending with 999. There are 10 major subjects, like Social Sciences, Religion, Languages, etc. Those subjects are further broken down into 10 divisions, which are further broken down into subdivisions. Every time you narrow a book’s subject, the number assigned (known as the “call number”) gets more precise, telling you what the book is about and where to find it on the shelf. Because you can drill down into subject matter in such a specific manner, even to the decimal point (hence the name) the Dewey Decimal Classification System allows libraries to be very specific in how they categorize and shelve books.

The Library of Congress (LC) has also developed a system that focuses more on classification categories than on hierarchy. The system divides book categories into 21 classes or subjects. The most obvious difference between the two systems is this: Dewey call numbers begin with numbers; LC call numbers begin with letters. With the Library of Congress system, you are not restricted to a set number of classifications or subclassifications, which makes it more flexible as times change and entire new subjects are created.

But depending on the size and purpose of your home (or in our case, studio) library, you may opt not to use such a specific system as the Dewey Classification or Library of Congress. Some individuals group their home library books by color or size – or use a rough approximation of the Dewey or LC systems by grouping similar books together on a shelf or section. For people who intend to loan books from their library, as we do, some librarians recommend adapting a system that allows you to document the books you own and access them quickly. For us, this might mean creating a modified Library of Congress-like system – like using the standard category grouping, then alphabetizing by author. We will also need a manual or electronic card catalog of sorts – so we can remember who has what book.


While we are still perfecting our studio library system, the volume of books crowding our shelves certainly demonstrates the need for one. Today, there are apps like Libib, iBookshelf, and iCollectBooks that you can purchase for your phone or tablet that allow you to catalogue and organize (and even scan barcodes or ISBN information) that seem impressive. My, how times have changed since the trusty old card catalog. (R.I.P.)

P.S.: Do you have systems that help organize your own personal libraries? What works for you?


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Click to read 2 comments
  1. Sandy

    i am wrestling with the same issue…i have them loosely arranged according to subject matter….graphic design, jewelry design, fabric design, floral design, quilt design, influential people/trends, etc…the really big ones are an issue!
    and i am not really there yet….but working on it….

  2. Kam the Librarian

    With 46 years of library experience behind me, I urge you to choose accepted software and either Dewey or LC. They are documented Which allows anyone assigned to work with the system will have access to necessary information. Since you have essentially a special collection, I recommend LC as it is used in university libraries for its ability to deal with minute topics well. It will be a lot of work but worth it in the end. If you have the funds you might consider hiring a librarian. It will go faster.