How to Organize Your Bookshelf

Ballantine helps me organize the bookcase - The Messy Baker

14 Mar How to Organize Your Bookshelf

How to Organize your Bookshelf - The Messy Baker

I am capricious. One day I’ll view a certain cookbook as General Cooking and file it away as such. Then after using it for a while, I realize I’m drawn only to its dessert section and stick it in with the baking books. Only it’s not a baking book, so I forget I did this. Or perhaps a book is easy to tag but too tall for the obvious shelf, and I am forced to find a spot for it according to its bulk. Under this willy-nilly system, my books become filed so irrationally it’s as if a drunken monkey had played librarian in my office.

Last month, my bookshelves reached a crisis point. I simply couldn’t find the one cookbook I was looking for. I spent half an hour craning my neck as I skimmed the spine of my 367 cookbooks. This is time I could have spent cooking. Time could have spent writing. Time I could have spent doing anything be scouring my inventory. Clearly I needed to organize my bookshelf — but I wasn’t sure how to begin.

Using Eat Your Books to Organize Your Bookshelf

At the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference last month, I asked everyone who would give me the time of day, “How do you organize your cookbooks?” Do you have a seasonal section? How do you file celebrity cookbooks? And what do you do with Big Celebrity Chef’s Quick Gluten-Free Vegetarian Slow Cooker Recipes? They all had a different answer, a different method, a different collection to shelve.

At one of the panel discussions, I met Jane Kelly of Eat Your Books (EYB) (click here for a brief review) and she got me thinking. Since I consult her online cookbook database almost daily for inspriation, why not use its customizable bookmark system to file (and track) my cookbooks?

The Big Sort – Or How to Organize Your Bookshelf Without Losing Your Mind

I began by looking at the categories EYB assigned, and created a pile using the category that made most sense to me. For instance, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything was categorized as Beginner, How To and General Cooking. I’d be using it mainly to check cooking techniques, so filed it under How To, which I call Reference just to be ornery.

So I began organizing my collection in the broadest terms, taking hints from EYB if I got stuck. I began with:

  • General
  • Baking
  • Single Subject
  • Reference
  • Memoir/Food Writing

That lasted about 20 minutes. I found I needed to add:

  • Ethnic
  • Healthy

Still not there. I added:

  • Seasonal
  • Kitchen Garden
  • Specialty Diets
  • Quick Meals
  • Wine/Wine Pairing

With categories firmly in place, I began to refile books.

Helping me organize the bookshelf - The Messy Baker

During this process other challenges arose — beyond the obvious. Some categories had 5 too many books to fit on the shelf. Others juuuussst fit but would outgrow their space during the next publishing cycle. So I broke these categories down again in a way that would allow me to move small collections of less used books out of the office without driving myself nuts. For example, under Single Subject, I created a subset called “Equipment Based.” Here I file the books written specifically for slow cookers, food processors and pressure cookers. I don’t use these often, so they can go somewhere else when the time comes.

I broke down some large categories just for ease. My baking collection has more than 60 books, so I divided it into General Baking / Breads / Pasta & Pastry / Chocolate / Sweets / Cakes, Cookies & Pies / Ice Cream.  I know. I know. Ice Cream should go under Single Subject, but my logic is thus. Ice cream = sweet = dessert = baking. EYB graciously records my arbitrary bookmarks without any criticism, and away I go. No arguments.

Maintaining the Organized Bookshelf

Since The Big Sort, I have added “Under the Bed” and “In the Kitchen” for books that are … well, under the bed or on a shelf in the kitchen. I also have an “Articles in Process” section within easy reach of my desk for books I’m reviewing or whose authors I’m interviewing. Once I’m done, I consult EYB to see where I originally filed them. Should April Charmian disagree with the logic March Charmian applied, I can just change the bookmark in EYB —  and still find the book when June Charmian is looking for it.

Definitely worth the $25/year. And day spent reshuffling. The resulting chiropractic bill is up for debate.

How do you file your cookbooks? If you subscribe to Eat Your Books, what do you use it for?

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  • Judith Godfrey
    Posted at 22:42h, 14 March Reply

    I TOTALLY love EYB since the above mentioned Messy Baker put me on to it! Mostly, I remember a recipe I made but cannot remember the cookbook in which it was located. EYB to the rescue for sure! I know there are many other uses for EYB but frankly, I just haven’t taken the time. However, for me, it’s worth every penny just to find the recipes I want!

    • Judith Godfrey
      Posted at 22:43h, 14 March Reply

      And do I know this feline helper?

      • Charmian Christie
        Posted at 23:43h, 14 March Reply

        Which feline helper? The shelf duster or the one assisting me on entering bookmarks at my computer? They both got in on the act at some point.

        For those who care, Ballantine (named for the whisky) is the brown tabby on the bookshelf. Gladly is the orange tabby resting his head on my laptop (bottom left of first photo).

        If you have cats, add a good hour to the sorting process.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 23:41h, 14 March Reply

      Good to hear you are using it and find it good value for money.

      I, too, have found it useful when I just *know* I’ve seen a recipe but can’t remember where. It also indexes certain magazines and blogs, so I find I’m using it more and more.

  • Casey@Good. Food. Stories.
    Posted at 12:44h, 15 March Reply

    Huh – my boys never help me CAT-egorize anything; they’re just content to use my computer as a butt-warmer. I think Ballantine and Gladly need to teach Harry and Lenny how to organize!

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 23:13h, 15 March Reply

      Oh, Casey! Why didn’t I think of that pun?

      My cats are not as helpful as they think they are. If I followed their advice, the books would all be on the floor and used as sleeping spots. I’m sure Harry and Lenny would learn only bad habits from my cats.

  • Kathryn
    Posted at 16:05h, 15 March Reply

    Nice to see Ballantine making an appearance. Orange Cats like to steal the show with their beauty…

    Some of my cookbooks are organized by size due to the small size of one shelf, but most are filed alpha by author. There are a few exceptions, for example, the quinoa books are grouped together. This works, up to a point, but it relies on brain power to remember which book that recipe was in. I am a librarian by training and, over the years, I have toyed with creating a database to index them. Haven’t done it yet, but I do keep favourite recipes in an Evernote notebook. I shall check out EYB. Oh yes — those appliance cookbooks are filed beside the device (slow cooker cookbooks on top of the slow cooker box in the basement; mixer cookbooks in the cupboard below the counter where the mixer sits and so on).

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 23:19h, 15 March Reply

      I, too, have a shelf that has small books. I tend to keep my non-cookbooks there. It’s so frustrating that the books vary in size go greatly I have to break up sets. I didn’t mention it in the post, but I know have a “Tall Books” section.

      I tried the alpha order by author but realized I didn’t always know the author. How embarrassing is that! I ended up at the computer to find out, so figured Eat Your Books was the way to go.

      Interesting that you keep the appliance books filed with the device. That’s a great idea. It won’t work for me given our space limitations, but it’s another clever organizing tool that proves there’s more than one way to keep your cookbooks in order.

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Maggie
    Posted at 22:51h, 15 March Reply

    I am happy if the books are all in the same room. Organizing them is like herding cats.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 23:21h, 15 March Reply

      I’d be thrilled if all my books were in the same room. It would be so much easier! I guess I could stop collecting books or get rid of some… Maybe when I retire :-)

      And I agree, organizing is like herding cats. Harder in some ways since you can often coax a cat with food. Cookbooks? They ignore you.

      • Maggie
        Posted at 01:00h, 16 March Reply

        Hate to tell you, but I am retired . I can’t stop collecting recipes and cookbooks. It must be genetic because my mother would trade recipes anywhere with anyone.

        • Charmian Christie
          Posted at 01:10h, 16 March Reply

          “I’ll stop when I retire” is a lie I tell myself to feel better. Guess you blew that cover.

          Genetic or learned behaviour? Makes no difference. My mom’s 80 and still clips recipes for me. I think I’ll be swapping recipes until the day I die. All I have to say is there had better be amazing food at my funeral!

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