How To Organise Your Library

john v willshire
Published in
6 min readSep 14, 2015


Building a systemic view of
what you know you know,
and what you don’t… yet

Last week, I gave a talk at dConstruct in Brighton on Metadesign (the annotated slides are here), and as part of it, I talked about using my library at home as a way of seeing the relationships of the worlds in which we at Smithery work. I thought it would be useful to quickly explore some ways of organising libraries to help others do that.

What Is A Library?

I use the word ‘library’ advisedly. From his essay ‘Unpacking My Library’, here’s Walter Benjamin…

“The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library” — Walter Benjamin

Just having the ability to buy books doesn’t make a library. Just having the knowledge of which books to buy does not make a library. Both of these things together will bring together a collection of interesting books, but not necessarily a library.

Instead, I think of a library as all of the books, the relationships between them, and their place at a given moment in time.

A library is all of the things between the covers, but not on the pages.

(As someone pointed out after the talk, Terry Pratchett explored this concept in his own wonderful way with L-Space)

People asked me two things with regards to the whole library part of the talk afterwards.

Firstly, which book would recommend? Well, lots of them — but I keep a book list which is here (it needs updating, admittedly, so it’s six months old). Dive in, see what grabs you.

Secondly, how would you start arranging a library?

Working out the book matrix (2014))

The way I started was halfway through a month of research into the relationship netween How Buildings Learn and Clock Of The Long Now — two books by Stewart Brand, which I also talked about at dConstruct.

From ‘Metadesign For Murph’, dConstruct 2015 —

I’m not suggesting that you have to do the first sixteen days of research to get to that point, of course, just that this is the way I found it useful to view the system we were operating in.

If I were starting from scratch today, this is what I’d do.

Lay Out Your Books

It‘s really useful to unpack all of the books and lay them out on the floor. Firstly, you get to reacquaint yourself with all of the books you’ve read (or are still to read), flip them over, leaf through a page or two of intro, just to understand what it is you’re holding in your hands.

Book Matrix (2014)

This process is remarkably quick, as it happens. I reckon you spend on average 30 seconds per book (some you instinctely know, some you need longer to investigate).

As you place them on the floor, start to group together things that you decide are thematically similar — for example, I’d create sections of personal creativity, design textbooks, economic overviews and so on.

You’ll end with piles of similar books all over the place.

Find The Main Line

Once you get all of the books out on the floor in this manner, stand back and think about the main east-west line you could draw through the books.

The one that sticks with me most is from the daily actions on one hand up to the whole economy views on the other. Something that can be changed really quickly, to something that takes years (even decades) to be noticably different.

It could be anything you fancy though. You could do it from oldest to newest, most individual-centric to most group-centric, most technical to most accessible, most theoretical to most practical. It’s your library, you’ll have a good sense of what makes most sense to you.

You’ll end with those piles of similar books roughly orientated along the east-west line you think works best (try several, if you’re not sure).

Stretch It Out

Now that you have a horizontal line, start taking one or two of those piles of books, and stretch them out along a north to south line too.

Start by picking a north-south line for each individual pile. If you’re in ‘personal creativity’, perhaps, you could pull it apart by ‘things I do and things I don’t’. If you were in design textbooks, it could be front-end to back-end (in the loosest possible way).

These will all be separate ways of pulling out each pile. But as you begin to understand what’s pulling apart each pile, start to note down commonalities in the way that they pull apart. You should start to see a way in which you can pull all of the piles distributed along the east to west line in a consistent way from north-south too.

At the end of this part, you’ll have a rough map on the floor of the wider system in which you operate.

Walk Through The World

Finally, you’ll understand more about the world you’ve created as you begin to walk and talk people through it.

If you’re in an office doing this for your company, then grab a few folk just to see how your explanation of the library works for them.

What they’ll probably do is start suggesting either tweaks to the ordering of where certain books go, suggestions for what else might go there, or even ways of redescribing your initial North/South/East/West lines. All these are valid suggestions, of course; what you want in a broader organisation is a common view of the system, so don’t remain too unbudging in your views of what goes where.

If it’s your own library, then try and write a blog post (or a Medium piece) on how you see the library, and what it tells you about the system.

You can, of course, whittle the books down to an ‘immediate’ library — the books you’ll find relevant on a regular basis. I keep all the older books in a secondary place, and may consider pulling it all back together in the future too (you never know what exactly may be useful…)

My ‘immediate’ library, as of Sept ‘15

So, What Is A Library?

Overall, what you should be left with is a view of the system that you operate in, at it’s very widest. What I’ve found then becomes really useful can be categorised as two broad things…

Firstly, it’s a map of rediscovery. I can be thinking about a particular sort of problem, and stand in front of my bookshelves and look at the area of the system in which I should find something interesting or useful to start addressing that problem with. The things I know that I know.

Secondly, it’s a way of finding out what isn’t there, but might be. If you’re looking at a section of the bookshelves, and can’t see anything there that seems relevant, then it suggests that I should broaden my search into other territories in the system (maybe this isn’t that sort of problem), or that maybe there are more relevant ideas and theories I don’t yet know about, that could reside in other books. The things I don’t know… yet.

Between these two things, I think the value of ‘the library’ becomes clearer. Of course, I’m still wedded to physical books for various different reasons, and I could see how this would be harder to do with eBooks (the ‘collections’ you can order in Kindle, for example, are harder to use in this way). I don’t think it’s impossible to achieve with a little creative though from eBook & device manufacturers though.

Anyway, have fun dancing amongst the books.



john v willshire

Runs Smithery. Makes Artefact Cards. Said 'Make Things People Want' > 'Make People Want Things'.