A Bookworm’s Guide to Decluttering Your Bookshelves (and why you would even consider such a thing)


Decluttering your bookshelves isn’t easy when you’re a bibliophile. Here’s why it’s a good idea to declutter your book collection, plus practical steps (and a bit of book collecting wisdom from Anne of Green Gables).

A neat, clutter-free bookshelf

How to Declutter Books

If you already know me from my other blog, you know decluttering is a passion of mine, and that I find beauty in a simple home.

There was a time, though, when I thought decluttering my books was impossible. Actually, I thought it was kind of wrong. I didn’t need to justify my overflowing bookshelves because books are inherently valuable. It’s a book, ergo, keep it.

But I was committed to going through every item I owned (my goal, even before Marie Kondo’s lovely book came out!) so I finally faced the books. And when I did, my thinking on the subject evolved. The big revelation was that just because a book has value doesn’t mean it has value or usefulness FOR ME. I narrowed my criteria for keeping books, and ended up getting rid of few dozen.

Not long after I began culling books, I came across this passage in Anne’s House of Dreams:

“‘Our library isn’t very extensive,’ said Anne, “but every book in it is a friend. We’ve picked our books up through the years, here and there, never buying one until we had first read it and knew that it belonged to the race of Joseph.'” –Anne’s House of Dreams by L. M. Montgomery

“Ah!” I thought, “The perfect litmus test for my books! Are these books friends?” Now, unlike Anne I have kept a number of books that I haven’t read yet–books I’m waiting to “meet.” Once I do read them I’ll decide if we’re mere acquaintances or if we’re something more.

Also, that part about “the race of Joseph” is another way of saying kindred spirit. In Anne’s House of Dreams and the novels following, she uses that phrase to describe people (or in this case, books) who resonate with her.

Quote from Anne's House of Dreams: "'Our library isn't very extensive,' said Anne, "but every book in it is a friend.'"

Every book lover has an opportunity for deeper self knowledge–and more personalized bookshelves–if they’re willing to declutter their books. Figure out which of your books are your true friends, and part ways with the rest. Here’s how.

Downsize Your Books: How to Declutter Your Bookshelves

Go through your books one box or shelf at a time. Handle each book and think carefully whether or not it needs to be part of your permanent collection. Your goal is to look at every book with fresh eyes and not take its shelf spot for granted. Here are some guidelines for deciding which books to keep and which books to get rid of:

Books to keep:

1. High-quality copies or editions of your favorite books.

These are your old friends! Keep the books you know you’ll return to for comfort and inspiration down the road.

2. Reference books you know you’ll use.

Books in this category are academic or informational. Keep your oft-used cookbooks, nature guides, health encyclopedias, and dictionaries. For instance, my husband is a teacher; he keeps books related to his field to use for lectures or research.

3. Quality books to build your children’s home library.

Yes, you can and should take advantage of your public library, but it’s also nice to have a few favorite children’s books on hand that your kids will fall in love with as they grow up. If you don’t have kids, still curate a small collection of children’s books–either for your own enjoyment, or for nieces, nephews, and other young friends who may come to your home.

Home library with messy bookshelves and a cozy reading chair

Books to purge:

1. Required reading from your college days.

If you’ve hung on to old textbooks or required course reading, it’s time to say goodbye! It might hurt to get rid of something that cost you a chunk of money (I’m looking at you, Norton anthology!). But if you’re not using it for your current job or continuing education there is simply no point to keeping it. Sell theses books if you can. And if not…just let them go.

2. Books that you’re unattached to.

Do you own books you haven’t actually read and can’t see yourself reading in the near future? Give them away. Don’t hang on to a book just because it’s a classic or a nice-looking copy or on a subject you feel you should learn more about. Purge it. If you get the urge to read it in the future, chances are the library will have it! (For peace of mind, you can keep list of books you might want to read one day, but don’t need to store.)

3. Books you have multiples of.

Do you have the complete works of an author in one volume, but also own copies of their individual works? Try to make a choice.

4. Topical books that no longer apply to you.

Some books are tailored for specific circumstances, issues, or stages of life. These include books on spiritual growth, self help, entrepreneurship, early motherhood–any number of topics. They’re usually most beneficial in particular seasons of life. So if a book no longer speaks to your situation, pass it on to someone else who may benefit.

5. Books you can find in the library.

The library is going to have most of what you need, most of the time! If it’s not in your county’s system, they can probably get it for you via interlibrary loan from another part of the state. I’ve requested some obscure ones, and so far my librarians have never come up short! When you come across books on your shelves that you don’t treasure, let the library “store” them for you. (Meaning, check out those titles when you want them again.)

Keeping your bookshelves clutter free for years to come

Set some book acquisition guidelines for yourself going forward. For me, I check out new releases (a.k.a. untested books) from the library instead of buying them.

I also shoot for a yearly once-over, where I reevaluate my book collection. We have a finite amount of shelf space, so if the books become too crunched for comfort we know it’s time for another edit.

What clutter-free bookshelves can do for you

Here’s the cool thing about winnowing your book collection: all the ones you do keep are going to stand out like jewels. You’ve honed a well-curated collection of books that are meaningful and dear to you. Now your bookshelves are a better reflection of you.

Now you’re among true friends.

More posts on the bookish life:

A Bookworm\'s Guide to Decluttering Your Bookshelves (and why you would even consider such a thing)

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  1. This is so perfect for where I’m at right now! It’s like you wrote this post just for me! My mom and I have been KonMarieing the house and books are next on my list. I think she has some thoughts but not keeping any unread books is something my bookish heart doesn’t agree with entirely. I love the quote from Anne and I think it will help me to narrow my collection down!
    Thanks! And I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    1. Thank you! I did have a good weekend, although I stayed up too late every night): I shouldn’t do that with a not-sleeping-through-the-night infant! I hope your decluttering goes well. It’s pretty fun, isn’t it? It just feels good to lighten the stuff load. Let me know how the books go for you!

  2. Thank you for the guidelines. I do have trouble letting go of books, and this helps. I love the quote, too; I had forgotten that one. It must be time to read Anne again…

  3. Just thinking about decluttering my bookshelves gives me an anxiety attack. But I know it has to be done. I like the idea of thinking about books as friends. Maybe that’ll help. Thanks!

    1. It is, it is. I’ve had to become okay with that fact. But I don’t mind re-evaluating my books from time to time. It helps me see how I’ve grown and changed and given me better insight into myself!

  4. I also use most of these guidelines for myself. However, one I get hung up on is telling myself I don’t need to keep or buy books I could just as easily get out of the library. The problem lies in the fact that I pick these books up at library used book sales. I.e., the library is getting rid of them. I am afraid that by the time I get to them on my TBR list, the libraries within my interlibrary loan system will no longer have them. So I buy and buy and buy… and I’m overflowing with books! Do you have any advice? Thanks!

    1. Ah, library book sales! Yes, it is so tempting to get an abundance, isn’t it?! The thing is, you really can get almost any book through interlibrary loan. It might not be in your county library system, but if you ask the librarian they can put in an ILL request which goes out to libraries all over the entire country. Many times my more esoteric requests get filled by academic libraries. Remember, these are books that you CAN’T find through your particular library’s search portal. These are books that could come in from anywhere in the country. You just have to put in a special ILL request which usually involves filling out a form with the book’s title/author/and sometimes ISBN (which you can often pull from the book’s Amazon listing).

  5. Truly great ideas that will be most helpful to me, a bibliophile. I will share the message with like-minded friends. Thank you – God bless!

  6. This is great. That is a beautiful quote. I was teetering on the brink of letting go of my 30 year old set of Anne books. Now I want to read them again instead.

  7. I came across this article on Facebook, and I am glad I did. Someone else here said she’d forgot this Anne quote, I had too. Frankly, I had never thought of it as advice I could use for myself. Silly, huh? I suppose I needed a paradigm shift.
    It looks like my book shelves are about to be edited.

    1. I hope the whittling process has brought more peace and joy to your shelves! I’m doing it again myself this month…really looking each of my books in the face, and thinking about our future relationship, or lack thereof, if need be! (:

  8. I would LOVE to see a picture of your bookshelves! Ironically, a Christian school just closed and is giving us as many of their books as we want. I am being picky, but at the same time, I’m building up a lot of my young people’s personal libraries…so I think that might mean a huge chunk of these books will leave someday. But, truthfully, we don’t have the space…at all….

    1. Maybe I will do a post this summer with a tour of our personal library! Yes, even though we siblings split up our family’s books at least`6 ways, we each came away with a plethora! Too many. You might just have to decide which books are worth keeping in the interim, even if that means they’ll have to go in boxes for a few years! Worth it to store, even if they aren’t being read? Some are, some aren’t.

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