Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Clear the Clutter from Your Bookshelves by Erin Doland


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by Erin Doland of Unclutterer

I have an affinity for books that borders on an addiction. I usually read three books a week or more, and those books come in many forms — audio, digital, checked out from the library, and purchased. Even with relying heavily on audio, digital, and library books, I continually fight book clutter in my home.

If you’re a bibliophile like me, you may have more printed books than you can (or should) store in your home. Try these five tips from Unclutter Your Life in One Week to decide which books to keep and which ones to let go:

  1. Give away any books that you don’t plan on reading or referencing again, are in the public domain, and can be found in their entirety online.
  2. Keep the leather-bound copy of The Scarlet Letter that your grandmother gave you on her deathbed.
  3. Give away or recycle out-of-date reference books. They’re full of inaccurate data.
  4. Keep books that you love and books that provide you with significant utility.
  5. Give away books that you’ve been storing for the sole purpose of impressing your houseguests. If you’ve never read the complete works of Shakespeare, and you never plan to read the complete works of Shakespeare, get rid of the complete works of Shakespeare.

These tips also work well for books you may be storing in your office at work. Unless you are an executive with office walls lined with bookshelves, you might be sacrificing valuable storage space with books you never reference. Keep the books you regularly need, and take home, sell, or recycle the others.

Erin Rooney Doland is Editor-in-Chief of Unclutterer.com and author of the book Unclutter Your Life in One Week.

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  1. Meredith from Penelope Loves Lists says:

    February 23rd, 2010 at 8:44 am (#)

    Great post, Erin. I, too, struggle with having too many books.

    I’ve adopted your system: after a read a book, I keep only those by my 4-5 very favorite authors (so i have a complete collection) but all others get either given to someone I think will like it, or donated.

  2. liza says:

    February 23rd, 2010 at 3:28 pm (#)

    Thank you for the tips! I need to get rid of the old reference books and the books I struggled to get through, but didn’t for some reason… and never will.

  3. Kalani says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 7:10 am (#)

    I love books, and don’t see them as clutter at all. That being said, if I have more than one copy of a book, I get rid of the more dilapidated one; if I have books I’ve never read, I plan on reading them (which makes them not clutter), and if people borrow books but don’t return them, I try not to stress about it because the stress becomes clutter, especially if the books are easily replaceable or not that important. I did get rid of all my textbooks because I realized I will never, never return to them.

  4. Seth says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 8:02 am (#)

    While in college a friend of mine told me that he only bought paper-back books because they are cheaper and usually easier for him to carry around. As soon as he was done he would give it to someone else with an instruction to pass it along when they were done. He gave me the Silmarillion which I then passed on. If I remember correctly his shelf only contained scripture, books for current classes, and his single current paper-back.

    I own very few books because I get my reading material from the library as much as possible. If I can’t find a book I want to read at the library I will ask friends or search Book Mooch before buying a copy. It is then read and listed on Book Mooch. I haven’t listed a book that didn’t find a new owner fairly quickly. The books I have kept include scripture, some reference materials, and nicely bound editions of some of my favorites. Together they consume less than a standard bookshelf I think.

    Of course, these book habits haven’t rubbed off on my wife and daughter. My wife hasn’t let go of her college texts yet, although her child and family studies books have become somewhat of a lending library to her friends. We have a amassed a sizable children’s book collection which I enjoy although when the designated shelves are full (we still have plenty of space set aside for this collection) we will likely begin donating the old as new books come in (wife and daughter permitting).

  5. Gilda says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 8:42 am (#)

    My husband and I have hundreds of books, but really 80% are his. The problem is all of his our reference books (that don’t go out of date) and are related to his field of study (he wants to be a professor). I’m waiting for the day he gets his tenure track position and a permanent office, then we can send some books over there and save some bookcase space!

  6. Lose That Girl says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 9:01 am (#)

    So timely! We live pretty much clutter free *except* for our books. We have TONS. I hate the idea of getting rid but Erin’s points make plenty of sense. Keeping them “just because” isn’t good enough.

  7. Katie says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 9:50 am (#)

    I agree with Kalani, I don’t see books as clutter (as long as they’re neatly organized on bookshelves). I find it relaxing to sit in a room where I can see a wall of books. I recently organized mine by category (loosely using the Library of Congress system), and within the categories, I am arranging them by color, creating little rainbows across the bookshelves. I’m going through one little section at a time, making sure that they’re all in my library software (which is also on my iPhone), so that I won’t accidentally buy a book I already have. Now that they’re organized, I can find any book I own in minutes (that was the impetus for organizing them, because it was frustrating to waste 30 minutes every time I needed to reference a book I couldn’t find).

    I did, however, recycle all old textbooks that were too outdated to be of reference use.

  8. Cathy says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 10:02 am (#)

    I’m also a book addict, but I have found a cool, fun way of finding good homes for books I don’t expect to read again. It makes parting with my books a little less painful. It’s called BookCrossing.com, and it’s a free website that encourages you to release your books into the wild so they can find new readers.

    You register a book on the website. Then leave it somewhere readers might congregate — a hotel lobby, your favorite coffee shop, or even a park bench (in a plastic bag) — with a sticker inside giving its BookCrossing ID number. When someone picks it up, they might go to the website and log in, saying they’ve found it. And you’ll get notified. This way, you can track your books as they travel around the world — and they often do.

    We like to think of it as turning the whole world into one big book club. the website :


  9. Stormbringer says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 11:50 am (#)

    How did she know that I have books only to impress people? Actually, I didn’t realize it myself until I read it. Now they can be made to go away. Liberation!

  10. Jennifer says:

    February 25th, 2010 at 3:19 pm (#)

    These are great tips! I’d also like to add to the book recycling topic. If you haven’t checked out PaperBackSwap.com, it’s certainly a great resource for reducing clutter, and at the same time feeding your reading habit 🙂 It’s great for recycling books you’ve already read. You use your books as credits towards other members books you want to read. The affiliate sites, DVDSwap, and CDSwap also work in the same way, and are super great for reducing clutter as well 😀

    Also, as a side note, PaperBackSwap is super awesome in that they’ve now helped set up several school libraries through the donations of their members. How cool is that!

    I learned about them from a guy I sat next to on an airplane a year or two ago. Nice fella, and he seemed pretty organized 😉

  11. Glenda says:

    February 26th, 2010 at 6:11 am (#)

    I’ve used a great website, http://www.PaperbackSwap.com, for a few years now and it’s helped me get rid of all the “only-read-it-once” type books on my shelves. Because of the nature of the site (swapping), I’ve accumulated other books, but find that some of those can be given, at minimal cost, to friends who are hankering for a particular title. So let’s just say that I’m “gaining on my clutter” using this method.

  12. Becky says:

    February 26th, 2010 at 9:32 am (#)

    Kalani, you start to see them as clutter when you move fifty heavy book boxes. After my last move, I seriously downsized my collection to only books that I would reference or re-read.

  13. Diana says:

    February 26th, 2010 at 9:49 am (#)

    Another idea for getting rid of books you no longer want can be found at
    http://www.booksforsoldiers.com/aboutus.php. They have details on how you can send books to soldiers and you can read about the results of this program at their website.

  14. Melissa says:

    February 26th, 2010 at 1:41 pm (#)

    Mostly great advice, but if your out-of-date books are “full of inaccurate data,” I’d question the utility (if not the kindness) of giving them away.

  15. Deborah says:

    February 28th, 2010 at 11:25 am (#)

    My husband and I both suffer from book-hoarding! I have always joked that someday our house will simply sink into the ground due to the weight of all the books. Recently, with the help of Erin’s book, I have begun cleaning out my own stash. It’s very hard to give away books, but I found a specific way that helps a lot. I organize the books into a collection, then find a worthy recipient and hand over the whole bunch. For example, for years I collected all the American classics. I took every one of them and gave them to a local English teacher, who then passed them on to her students. Letting go is easier when I know that they have gone to a good use!

  16. Bachelor Pad says:

    March 1st, 2010 at 6:55 am (#)

    My and my housemate have shelves that are literally filled to the brim with books that have the sole purpose of impressing people (girls). I would never consider them as clutter, they are dear to me. It was a long and tedious process to perfect our nonchalantly intellectual style, and these volumes are a big part of that.

    Think of the boys, Erin, we need that stuff.

  17. Kendra says:

    March 1st, 2010 at 6:07 pm (#)

    I always find free books and often take them home. I stopped buying books (besides textbooks) several years ago, but I still have tons. Looking forward to my 8th move in 6 years, I know I MUST cut down my book collection, and this is helpful information on motivating to actually do it!
    One other way to get rid of books: donate them to your local prison. They’re sure to be appreciated!

  18. Grammies says:

    March 4th, 2010 at 8:37 am (#)

    Five yrs ago we downsized to a 2 bdrm mobile home. I had Reader’s Digest Condensed Books from the 1950’s up thru the mid-2000’s. Oh it hurt to let them go until I realized I was being selfish by keeping them. Once I understood I was preventing someone else from reading them, it was easy to take the 300+ volumes to Goodwill. And, yes, people do read RDCB’s!!!! Classic stories succintly told.

  19. Design Public’s Organization Blog Fest: Bookshelves says:

    March 19th, 2010 at 4:21 am (#)

    […] topic this year is “Clear the Clutter from Your Bookshelves,” and the five tips come from Unclutter Your Life in One Week. The first two […]

  20. Shawn says:

    June 5th, 2010 at 8:53 pm (#)

    Great points here. Books are a big problem for my family as we are all readers and we have a tendency to LOVE all of our books. I think we need to really question that LOVE for EVERY book.

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