How to tidy your bookshelves – and why you should

A designer’s books should be on-hand for inspiration and guidance, so a well-kept library is a must. Just keep it tidy

Where the hell is my copy of Derek Birdsall’s Notes on Book Design? Are you even allowed to practice design without access to Birdsall? He’ll be in here somewhere, but … just look at this mess.

Constant and careless dipping into the shelves for inspiration/wisdom/reference/distraction has left my beloved collection of books looking a right state. Spines are every which way; rows of magazines sag sadly; genres and authors are scattered hither and thither, snarling with jagged teeth of bookmarks and Post-Its. It’s all so very uncouth. Some books are – I can barely bring myself to say it – some books are simply laying across the tops of other books. And there’s no sign of Birdsall.

I can’t ignore it any longer: the studio library has fallen into a state of higgledy-pigglediness. Something must be done, but this can’t be rushed. There’s a process.

I. The De-Shelving. This shouldn’t take too long. Just a simple case of taking the books off the shelves and … good lord they’re heavy. Sturdy binding and enormous pictures are very nice, but some of these are just absurd. What impact is this concentrated load having on the flimsy floorboards below? What damage is the design industry doing to the earth’s crust with this obsession for enormous books? I might just give the British Library a call and get them to make sure the foundations under their collection of Penrose Annuals are holding up okay.

II. The Symmetrical Book Stacking. A stack of books about maps. A stack of overblown and premature monographs. A stack of unnecessarily elaborate paper samples. A stack of Chip Kidd books with fancy but frayed die-cuts. A stack of books that have nothing in common other than the fact they all have introductions by Steven Heller. A stack of Pelicans that I will never, ever read. A stack of square magazines that … hang on….

iii. The Getting A Bit Sidetracked Bit. It takes approximately 34 issues of Creative Review to create a cube, or ‘CRube’. This information may not seem important now, but you’ll thank me for it one day. Where was I?

iv. The Delving. Ah, the smashing in-between bit. Halfway between the order and the chaos, where tidiness gives way to procrastination, and procrastination gives way to immersion. Sorting stops and sitting on the floor for a good couple of hours begins. It’s impossible to simply arrange books without getting lost in them – each one must be delved into, flicked through, scrutinised, sniffed, reminisced, considered. I reckon the best librarians are those that have no interest whatsoever in books – they must get loads done, simply moving lumps of paper around.

v. The Purge. This seems like a good opportunity to prune the unloved, the unread and the unnecessary. I am a professional advocate for the judgement of things by their covers, but there are far too many books here that are getting by on nothing but good looks. I have the best intention of getting around to reading them all one day, to see if the innards live up to the outtards, but I’m not quite sure when that one day will be. Brutal decisions must be made. And so begins a stack of books to be lugged to the charity shop. (The Pelicans can stay though. Nobody touches the Pelicans. Get your hands off my birds.)

vi. The Initial And Frankly Ridiculous Re-Shelving That Will Momentarily Look Nice On Instagram Or Something. I’m going to need more books with violet spines if I’m going to make this work.

vii. The Sensible, Rather Intense Re-Shelving. I dread to think how many days of my life I’ve spent staring at empty shelves, trying to envision logic. This whole process may seem unnecessarily procrastinatory, but occasional studio-confined crises like this offer vital psychological release. Freelance life is rather unpredictable, so an occasional rejig of library, website or business card can provide the welcome illusion of control. Now excuse me, I require complete silence while I translate stacks of books and magazines into an effective delivery system for retrieving magic from paper.

viii. The Calm. Look at that. Much shuffling and pensive sucking of spectacle arms later, a perfect Ikea’d grid of knowledge. It’s all here: 79 Short Essays, The End of Print, Penguin By Design, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, the 1989 Oink! annual. Everything I need at my fingertips, neat and tidy. All is good again. I can get on with my work now. I just need….

ix. The Despair. Nope, not here. I’ve definitely lost my Birdsall.

Matthew Hollister.
Matthew Hollister.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See and @gray

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency