A few years ago, in the course of a post on how to sort books, I said, “There are in fact people who arrange books by color” (alas, the link is now dead); I discover from a comment by Doctor Science in this Log thread (for a post in which Pullum answers the eternal question “What does Kreisoppa Tebberley mean?”) that the New England Law Library has a search function called “Well, Its Red” that actually allows you to look for a book based on its color. I could have used that back in my bookstore-worker days.


  1. marie-lucie says

    That sounds like a great idea. Many people have a better visual than verbal memory, so using colour as an additional searchable feature makes a lot of sense. I don’t sort my own books by colour on my shelves, but I usually remember what a particular book looks like, in size, shape and colour, the latter being easiest to remember.

  2. Kutsuwamushi says

    The day when I have so many books that sorting them by color is impractical will be a happy one, but I like the excitement of shelving Mithun’s “Languages of Native North America” next to “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (both green). And on the other side, a cookbook. Marvelous.
    The “well it’s red” function should also include size, hardback versus paperback, abstract versus representational cover design, perhaps an index of how busy it is… although I know that’s just being demanding.

  3. It’s a good idea in theory, but I’ve got a lot of beigy off-white dust covers that I wouldn’t know what to do with. Still, it would make redecorating the living room a whole lot more interesting. I see a wall with floor-to-ceiling red books on the left, sweeping across the spectrum to violet on the right, and padded out with some old copies of the yellow pages in the centre.

  4. A friend of mine who sells books has them organized by subject. When he sells one he looks for it by color description and whether it’s paperback or hardcover. It takes him more than an hour to find less than a dozen books. When I sold books I set them up alphabetized by author from the very beginning and never regretted it. My own books remain organized by subject.

  5. we should suggest this to LibraryThing geeks.
    I absolutely agree with Marie-Lucie’s point – visual memory is often stronger verbal. To add to this – colour also codes emotion. For some reason most of my favourite books are in various shades of green. And it’s not just colour, it’s the image on the cover too.

  6. I think this idea sucks. I also happen to be colorblind.

  7. Sorting by color actually makes sense in many technical areas– ‘Springer Yellow’ is the obvious example, but there are others.

  8. When I moved into my apartment, a friend unpacked my books for me. I hadn’t given her instructions or anything, so she went with what made visual sense to her and sorted by color:
    It took me over a year to get the courage to unsort them and put them back up, but in Library of Congress order. Now THAT is a project.

  9. I worked at an institution which had an Architecture library and an Engineering library and I was struck by how the engineering library was sorted thematically: materials, theory of structures, environmental physics etc, while the Architecture library was mostly sorted by individuals, Sullivan, Foster, Scarpa etc. It was like an outcropping of the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ strata that grind away below the surface of design team meetings.
    It also made me wonder how the students’ view of their disciplines would be changed if we swopped systems.

  10. In 2004 Chris Cobb, along with an army of McSweeney’s-rallied student volunteers, temporarily reorganized the contents of the Adobe Bookshop in San Francisco by color (25,000-35,000 volumes all told). They were left that way for a month as an art installation titled “There Is Nothing Wrong in the Whole Wide World.” The store, in its new arrangement, remained open for business throughout. At the end of the month, the volunteers returned to help put everything back.

  11. Menacle Gosaca says

    Here is a nice example from the subconscious shelf:

  12. Pepys Library is by height, kept that way per a codicil.
    Nicholas Basbanes contends (00:30:56) that at some point “you shelve according to the space that’s available.”

  13. In terms of cataloging, Cotton’s system is obviously the best. Beowulf is Cotton Vitellius A. xv, and how could cataloging be done better?

  14. roseholding says

    While working at a book store my wife had some terrible customers. They would leave porn in the kid’s section, leave Mein Kampf in the Jewish Studies section and a myriad of other terrible things. They used to yell at people for not wrapping their books properly or one woman was mad because they did not have a section of purple books. (She was decorating a house and wanted books that were purple, thus this Einstein thought a bookstore would sort their books by color?) What is the worst customer you have had?

  15. That’s a very nice wisteria on the Magdalene site.

  16. Well, if you’re still interested in it, has the original color sorting post.

  17. There is a special market for beautifully-bound, old-looking books. Interior decorators and lawyers use them as visual effects. If you ever visit a lawyer in his office full of books, sneak a look at the titles, and then ask him if he’s really read the complete works of Carlyle.
    As I understand, sometimes 4/5 of each book is sawed off and discarded, and the spine parts glued to a board in a nice row which can be conveniently installed.

  18. MMcM has this habit of reducing speculation to fact. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
    Our family owns 100+ Heritage Club books. They’re nicely made, durable books chosen according to the now-obsolete 1930s taste of George Macy of the department store family. A few of them (Sherlock Holmes, Les Miserable) have been read by 5 or 10 people and are worn out now, while others are pristine.
    About 50 of them no one wanted, and I found that there’s very little market for obsolete books no one wants to read. Obviously I should have been selling them to interior decorators.

  19. And then there’s Rachael Whiteread. That’s not the only one she’s done, either.

  20. (She casts the negative space surrounding objects.)

  21. at some point “you shelve according to the space that’s available.”
    According to the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science:
    fore-edge shelving Storing books with their spines parallel with the surface of the shelf, rather than perpendicular to it. To prevent the force of gravity from causing the book block to pull away from the case or cover, the spine should rest on the shelf with the fore-edge up. This method preserves call number sequence and adds at least two shelves to a standard 90-inch-high section when space is limited but makes browsing and locating a specific item difficult because the spines are not visible. For this reason, it is usually restricted to portions of a library collection that are not heavily used. See also: double shelving, flat shelving, and shelving by size.
    [image of 16th century example]
    So if you wanted books like these shelved by color, you would probably have to have it done by synthetes.

  22. Or is it “synesthetes”?
    synthete 97,800 ghits
    synesthete 61,400 ghits

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