17 August 2015

How to Cull Your Personal Library and Live to Tell About It

It must be in the air because so many of my friends in the book world are taking charge of their personal libraries. I started a couple weeks ago by reducing my massive cookbook collection by half. Feeling energized by that venture, I decided to tackle the rest of my books--both physical and virtual (more on that in a different post).

A couple of focused weekends later, and my house is breathing a huge sigh of relief. I feel tons lighter too. So how did I cut my personal library by more than half, get organized, and live to tell about it? I'll share my goals, process, degree of success, and plans for the future.


  • Get all books off the floor
  • Remove all books that I have no hope of reading, despite how much I like the premise or author
  • Remove all books that I have no hope of rereading, despite how much I loved the book the first time
  • Leave no bookcase double-shelved
  • Clean up my LibraryThing catalog
  • Organize my remaining books so I can find them 
  • Organize my Calibre eBook collection with same goals in mind

Note that I freely stole ideas for culling books from my blogging and Twitter friends, especially Florinda from The 3 R's Blog and Amanda from The Zen Leaf -- and maybe even you!

I began by opening up my LibraryThing catalog, so I could create a fairly accurate database of the more recent unread books in my collection. Next, I simply chose a shelf and dumped all the books in a pile. Then I picked the books up, one by one, and decided if I was going to keep it or not.

I didn't have any particular criteria for keeping a book. I read the publisher's summary, the first page or so of the book, and looked at the publishing date. Then I made a realistic guess on whether I'd really read (or reread) the book or not. I was pretty harsh during this process because I was determined to end up with fewer books.

I found it was easier to cull older books than newer books (more hope?). And I also discovered there were authors and series I wasn't ready to say good-bye to, even if I don't plan rereading. On the other hand, I realized there were whole genres I could remove without a second's thought.

I scanned every book I kept and entered each one into LibraryThing's inventory feature. I also made notes in the comment column if there was particular reason I kept a book (for example, for a freelance article).

After I finished each shelf, I went through the discard pile and separated the books into two groups: those that are destined for donation (Goodwill, library, AAUW) and those that will be given away (friends, family, book bin). I bagged up the donation books and took them right to the car. The giveaway books are in stacks until I can get around to moving them out of the house.

  • No bookcase or bookshelf is double-stacked. This means there are no hidden books anymore. What I see, is what I have. Win!
  • All books are not off the floor, but instead of having piles of books all over the house and on every step, I have just a handful of books without a shelf. Much improved!
  • Books are organized and I can easily and quickly find what I'm looking for. Win!
  • LibraryThing is cleaned up and useful. Win!
  • Caibre is cleaned up and useful. Win! (more on this in another post)
  • Regrets? None whatsoever!
Thoughts Going Forward
  • Next time I do a major culling, I'm going to get rid of every ARC older than some arbitrary date (say, two or three years?), no matter how much I still want to read the book.
  • I'm going to remember that I have a library card, an eReader, and I love audiobooks. Plus I know where to buy books. I absolutely do not need to hold on to a review copy; I can still get the book later.
  • I am going to try to keep the status quo for my personal library. I doubt I'll do a three books in, three books out kind of thing, but I'm going to attempt to avoid accumulation.
  • Whenever I finish a book, I'm going to delete it from my LibraryThing or Calibre database and immediately decide its fate: keep, donate, or share.
I also plan to follow the very smart method of Jen of Jen's Book Thoughts before adding books to my library. Here's my take on how it works.

When a book enters the house, I'll make an immediate assessment. Obviously, I'll keep the titles I need for freelance assignments. But besides those -- whether I requested the book, I was pitched the book, or the book is unsolicited -- I plan to take the time to read the summary, read the first page or so, and look over the promo materials before I give the book a home. If I'm still interested in the title, I'll enter it in my database and shelve it in the appropriate place so I can find it again.

If the book's premise or author's style no longer interests me, I'll put the book in the donate pile right away. In this manner, I hope to avoid filling my house and shelves with books that have little chance of getting read or being featured on my blog or in another venue.

What are some of the ways you keep track of your books? What methods do you use to cull your collection?


Jackie Mc Guinness 8/17/15, 8:27 AM  

When we were downsizing in 2012 I really reduced my books. I am an avid reader but realized i was unlikely to re-read the huge amount of books that had been moving with us over the last 20 years. Gone.
Since i have been using an e-reader for a few years and get my books from the library I have reduced the number of books I purchase to almost zero.
The books that did make it to the condo have been further reduced. We have a library in the condo so very easy to get rid of them.

bermudaonion 8/17/15, 8:49 AM  

Good for you!!! I got rid of a lot of books about a year and a half ago and I'm already back where I started from, I'm sad to say. My LT library isn't all that accurate but I do keep a spreadsheet that is pretty up to date.

Debbie 8/17/15, 9:11 AM  

WAIT!! Your cookbooks? I know I should do it too, but I'm not quite ready. I have over 300 cookbooks (we won't talk books yet) and lots and lots of cooking magazines. I am almost ready, but just not there yet--if that makes sense.

Katherine P 8/17/15, 9:18 AM  

I need to update my LT collection. It's horribly out of date. I love the idea of using that to help figure out which books to cull. I'm seriously impressed that you have no double stacked bookshelves! I'm not sure how long it's been since I cna say the same.

Andi 8/17/15, 9:34 AM  

Love it! I did some maaaaajor culling last year, and I have my TBR down to a reasonable level, but I actually noticed this weekend that I need to go through my keeper shelves and cull some from there, too. They're starting to stack up too heavily, and let's face it...I'm never going to re-read The Secret History.

ChaosIsAFriendOfMine 8/17/15, 9:42 AM  

I need to do this soon. We're in the process of getting our house ready to put on the market and piles of books on the floor probably aren't good staging! So Goodwill doesn't have a problem taking ARCs? That's why mine are piled up, I'm not sure where to donate them.

Kay 8/17/15, 9:56 AM  

I, too, did this a few years ago when we moved. And then I did it again a couple of years ago. And I gave away one of my big bookcases to my daughter. And now, well, I could use the bookcase again. My book collection is an ever changing thing. I do like the idea of deciding immediately and I also think I should think about using LibraryThing or Goodreads to keep track of what I own. Thanks for sharing!

Daryl 8/17/15, 11:29 AM  

i am impressed and admire your culling skillzzzzzzz

me? i stopped buying hard cover and paperbacks so i have not culled or weeded out my library in a long time .. and the archive of both Amazon Kindle and BN Nook keep(s) me pretty organized

Carrie 8/17/15, 11:32 AM  

You are inspiring me! Ever since we moved, I've only had room for my unread books on my shelves. That means that there are a lot of already read books in boxes in the basement. And they are all books I love because I culled mercilessly before we moved. I think I need to do that again to my unread books so I can have room for beloved books out where I can see them.

Laurel-Rain Snow 8/17/15, 11:46 AM  

It has been a mission for me, in the last few months, to slowly reduce the number of books on my shelves (physical shelves).

I eliminated two shelves in the hallway and all the books; I removed all the books in my pantry (yes, the pantry! LOL); two of the five shelves in my bedroom; a complete bookcase in my office, with all its books; and finally, last week, the books in my bathroom.

As for my unread books...the physical books are a mere handful on top of a shelf in my office. ARCs are read within the month and are tossed.

I like your very organized approach...I have never done anything with Library Thing, but I have a blog where I log in books purchased, read, etc.

Enjoy the rush you get from culling!

Jennifer Hartling 8/17/15, 12:05 PM  

Ahhh, inspiring! I've been eyeballing my stacks lately, thinking about how I NEED to let some of them go. I have a Little Free Library but they aren't moving out of here fast enough for me. When you get down to it there are only a few books that I will actually re-read. The rest can be obtained...it's not as if they are leaving the WORLD when they leave our homes, right? :D Bravo!

Sally Whitney 8/17/15, 12:20 PM  

I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the organization of your library. My idea of taking care of my library is to buy another bookcase, which is fun because I also collect antiques, and I love antique bookcases. Unfortunately, I'm running out of room in my house for the bookcases, and I sometimes have a hard time finding the books I'm looking for. How nice it would be to know exactly what books I have in my library and where they are located. I'm looking into LibraryThing today.

rhapsodyinbooks 8/17/15, 1:23 PM  

Wow, very brave of you! If I culled, I would IMMEDIATELY think I needed to read something I had culled! (which makes me think it might be a good psychological ploy to get me to read old ARCs, LOL)

Florinda Pendley Vasquez 8/17/15, 4:30 PM  

Congratulations! It sounds like your culling was fantastically successful, and I'm glad you were able to use the inventory feature and get your LT catalog cleaned up while you were at it. I'm trying to do a similar assessment on the books that come into the house so that the ones I doubt I read don't linger OR get logged into LibraryThing. It's such a great weight off to get this done, isn't it?

Margot 8/17/15, 4:42 PM  

Good for you! This sounds like a sensible way to go about the task. I did a huge culling right before we retired. I've kept it up - I do it about twice a year. I don't just cull books, but clothing, canned goods, spices, etc. I've noticed that I automatically buy less now. I seem to do a better job of thinking about a purchase before it comes into the house.

Katy McCoy 8/17/15, 6:21 PM  

How about some ideas for inexpensive book shelves? And I'm not talking boards and bricks. What I really want is a shelf system with moving shelves like a library where I can see all my books. I have no intention of getting rid of my books. They're all handpicked (no ARCs, for example)and I intend to read them all!

Lisa 8/17/15, 9:52 PM  

Kudos! So hard to make the tough calls. I have yet to tackle the virtual book shelves but I do try to make a quick pass through the physical ones regularly and never have books on the floor or double shelved any more.

Nise' 8/17/15, 10:24 PM  

I make it a point to only allow myself to place books on shelves, no floor, no table, no stacking on top of other "things". I try very hard not to double shelve and need to check out how I am doing with that goal. Awesome job on this project.

Marlissa 8/17/15, 10:49 PM  

Respect for the successful culling! I've been slowly working on that for longer than I care to admit. No more double shelving is a great goal and would cut my holdings in half.

I've used Goodreads, rather than Library Thing for cataloging (even though in many ways I like LT better) because the Goodreads app lets you scan the ISBN and auto enters the details. Also, any books bought from Amazon can be cataloged to Goodreads by ticking a radio button (you can choose which ones to add or leave out). Hey, I'm lazy!

A lot of my older books are out of print, so I've been reluctant to get rid of anything I couldn't readily find again. Conversely, I've managed to let go of a lot of Penguin classic.

Melynda Brown 8/17/15, 11:12 PM  

I am currently not using a program of any kind to organize my new (much smaller) cookbook collection. I do have (or will have them) organized by 4 basic shelves: baking and bread, general cooking, cuisine cookbooks and then everything else. Having gotten rid of about 1000 cookbooks, this is a new smaller library to work and cook from.

Meg @ write meg! 8/18/15, 1:31 PM  

You did great! I went through my books pretty thoroughly when we moved into our house last year, but I haven't been very strict about getting rid of ones I'm no longer sure I'll read, etc., and I'm quickly running out of room in my bookcases. I'm reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up right now (along with the rest of the world!) and will be going through my stacks very soon! Thanks for the inspiration.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 8/19/15, 1:10 AM  

This is definitely something I need to do. I have double stacked books on the floor and the bookshelves. It's just so difficult to part with them.

Amanda 8/19/15, 10:52 AM  

For whatever reason, the more you cull, the easier it gets! I'll bet the next round will be even easier for you. Congrats on the progress!

Sue Jackson 8/20/15, 2:25 PM  

I am so impressed by your motivation and efforts to declutter! Nice job! I stopped buying books for myself several years ago, in favor of using the library more (mainly for financial reasons but it helps with clutter, too!) I also rarely accept books for review (other than some kid/teen/YA books from publishers I have a long-term relationship with) - I just kept getting behind and never had time to read what I wanted. So, I do have an overflowing shelf of newish kid/teen/YA releases!

After I finish a book, I decide if I want to keep it, donate it, or lend it - I'm trying to keep only my absolute favorites! I do enjoy giving big bags of books to my younger cousins, niece & nephew whenever I see them!

With all that, I still have an entire bookcase of waiting-to-be-read books! lol

It's a never-ending battle - glad you made some progress!


Michelle 8/21/15, 9:51 AM  

Congrats! I did a major cull too earlier this summer, and it felt great knowing that the only books I have are those I've confirmed that I still want to read. I already go through a similar assessment of a book when it comes in the door, so I'm hoping to keep my shelves well-stocked but manageable as well.

Sheila (Bookjourney) 8/21/15, 2:09 PM  

Ugh. That was my goal this spring - make a dent in the book room and yes get the books off the floor... the table... er... you get it. This fall perhaps. The fall book sale at the library is in October. Maybe I have time to purge before then.

Trish 8/26/15, 4:43 PM  

This is seriously awesome!! So do you use LibraryThing to solely keep track of books you haven't read? I fail at keeping any sort of online database (I like the old school excel method), but this is definitely a way to keep track of what I haven't read.

I got to about 140 books and still need to do follow up. I still have the most trouble with saying goodbye to books that I've read. But right now I have an entire shelf devoted to these babies (many shelves double stacked but at least neatly on risers so I can see all the titles).

Good for you and thanks for sharing!

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