Documenting My Book Collection

A couple of shelves from my book collection.
A couple of shelves from my book collection.

Recently, I read 2-1/2 books that were related, in one way or another, to books and book collecting1. The first two books were Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. Bythell is the owner and bookseller of the Scottish used bookstore The Bookshop. These books were wonderful for anyone (like me) who enjoys used books, used bookshops, and small-town life. They also provided a fascinating look at the life of a used bookstore owner, and interactions with customers, book sellers and book buyers.

Having finished those books, I went seeking more books about books (a perfect example of the butterfly effect of reading). One name came up again and again: Nicholas Basbanes. For some reason, that name was vaguely familiar. Before searching online, therefore, I checked my bookshelves and there, right where it should be in the B-section was a book by Nicholas A. Basbanes titled Among the Gently Mad. My sister gave me the book as a gift years ago, but I hadn’t got around to reading it.

I pulled the book off the shelf to read, and quickly discovered it was not the first book about books that Brasbanes had written. Indeed, his first book on the subject, A Gentle Madness, was an acclaimed book. It had been highly regarded by such varied people as David McCullough and Michael Dirda. I obtained a copy of the book and began reading and was hooked at once. As I write this, I am halfway through the book and eager to read more of it every day.

Reading these books reminded me that I don’t have my own book collection well-documented. Despite various attempts over the years, the best I’ve managed to do is a vague assessment collected in LibraryThing that, if I am being honest with myself, isn’t very good. This week I spent some time looking at tools for documenting personal book collections. Most of them are software-based and none of them seem to meet my own requirements. I’ve decided, therefore, to roll-my-own, as the saying goes.

The first step in the process is to decide what information is important to capture about the books and the collection. Reading these books on books have helped me to clarify what information I want and how each piece of information is useful in some way. I’ve been sketching out data models and am in the process of refining those models so that not only can I properly document my collection, but that it neatly handles edge cases. What edge cases might appear in a collection? Well, for instance, how does one go about documenting a work that is split over multiple volumes. I have several of these, Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams being just one example.

With a data model in mind, the next step is to document the collection in a set of spreadsheets that map to the various entities in the model. In the past, I think the mistake that I have made is I have relied far too much on automation to speed up this part of the process. That is: I scanned barcodes and used data culled from online sources to pull in information about my books. That is not what I intend to do this time. This time, I plan on pulling each book from the shelf, one-by-one, and cataloging it by hand from the information available in the book itself. This isn’t just limited to publication information. It also includes physical description, condition, as well as annotations (mine and others), autographs, and ephemera found within. It will also be nice to handle each one of the books that I own.

Of course, the later steps are trickier. I have to figure out where and how to store the data, build some sort of UI so that the data is useful and can be maintained going forward. But I’m sure those pieces will fall into place in the time it will take me to document the collection. In the meantime, I’m giving myself a year to get all of the data I want documented in spreadsheets. As I go through the process, I’ll be posting about it on Twitter and anyone who wants can follow along there, but I’ll make an occasional update here as well.

Written on August 20, 2022

Did you enjoy this post?
If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for reading!

Follow Jamie Todd Rubin on

  1. The 1/2 book is still in progress. I am halfway through it.


  1. I have had the same experience as you. Far too often, I’ve tried automating my book collection by scanning and importing internet data etc.
    I’m now using Obsidian combined with the Dataview plug in and adding every book in my collection by hand and it has been much better and much more comprehensive than my previous attempts. It’s also enjoyable to go through each book and mark whether it’s annotated, signed etc and I’m finding books I forgot I owned!
    Good luck on your journey, and I hope to read more about the process and end results!


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.