How to Shelve Books in a Library

Co-authored by wikiHow Staff | Reader-Approved

Updated: November 27, 2019 | Reader-Approved

If you are thinking of volunteering or getting a job at a library, you likely will be shelving books. Books have to be ordered on shelves for library patrons to find and check out. To make sorting easier, libraries arrange books according to classification systems. Most public and school libraries use the Dewey Decimal System, while many universities and specialty libraries use the Library of Congress Classification system. Find out which system your library uses, then take advantage of the call number tags taped to books to ensure each one has a place on the shelves.

Method 1 of 3:
Ordering Books Neatly

  1. 1
    Read the call number on the book to figure out where it belongs. Look at the book’s spine for an identification tag. The call number will correspond to the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress classification system, or another alternative depending on which one your library uses. Read the letter or number listing on the tag to identify the book’s subject matter and find out where it belongs.[1]
    • Note that the sorting rules will vary depending on what system your library uses. Each library can do things in a slightly different way, so get accustomed to the sorting style before attempting to shelve anything.
    • If the book doesn’t have a call number, ask a librarian where it belongs. Let them look up the correct call number and tag the book to make the identification process easier for both guests and shelvers alike!
    • Keep in mind that children’s books follow the same rules as adult books. Separate the books by type, such as fiction, non-fiction, and picture book. Then, use the call number if they are available or alphabetical order by author if they are not.
  2. 2
    Take the book to the correct section according to the call number. The call number will be an actual number if you’re going by the Dewey Decimal Classification system (DDC) or a letter if you’re using the Library of Congress (LCC) classification. Books are sorted by subject matter through these systems. Find the shelf corresponding to the subject matter indicated by the tag.[2]
    • For example, a DCC call number of 780 is used to mark a book on music. For the LCC system, the call number is M. Take the book to the music section or look for other books with similar call numbers.
    • Libraries often separate books by section, such as fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult. Familiarize yourself with the library’s layout to make shelving easier. That way, you don’t accidentally stick a children’s book on the adult section!
  3. 3
    Sort fiction books alphabetically according to their author. Use the author’s last name, followed by their first and middle names, to position books from left to right on a shelf. If you don’t see an author listed, sort by the name of the publisher instead. Fiction books take up a large part of most libraries, so they often aren’t listed with call numbers. You will have to reason your way through the alphabet to shelve them correctly![3]
    • For instance, the author of the Harry Potter series is J. K. Rowling. Bring the books to the R shelf in the fiction section.
    • Collections of poems and short stories from modern and popular authors often get grouped into the fiction section. This can vary from library to library, but most shelvers do it this way so patrons don’t have to look in multiple places to find popular books.
  4. 4
    Arrange fiction books by series when they share the same author. For books that have the same author, sort them left to right alphabetically according to the series name. Then, sort the books in the series by number order. Standalone books come after series books and are also sorted alphabetically by title.[4]
    • For instance, you would put the Harry Potter books from the first to the last. The release dates listed on each book’s spine can help with this.
    • Ignore articles like “a,” “and,” and “the” when they start titles. Include prepositions like “of” and “into.” If you’re looking at books by Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain would come first since it starts with an A.
  5. 5
    Organize nonfiction books according to their call numbers. The most important part of shelving these books is getting them to the right section. Take the book to the proper shelf and then refer to the book’s call number tag. Fit the book by number first and then alphabetically by author if books share the same number.[5]
    • In the DDC system, you may have a couple of medical books labeled as 613. A possible order would be 616.3 ASL, 616.3 ART, and 616.3 BAI.
    • For the LCC system, sort by the starting letters in the call number, then arrange by number. For instance, PR 8914 J46 comes before PR 8914 J6.
    • Note that plays and poetry are often placed in the literature section of the sorting system unless they are from modern authors, but this varies a lot between libraries.
  6. 6
    Arrange biographies according to the people they are about. Biographies and memoirs are unique because they are typically sorted by subject matter instead of author. Doing it this way helps patrons find topics with ease. The subject and the author are part of the call number. Sort the books alphabetically by the person’s name first and then the author’s name second.[6]
    • For example, you might have a range of books on the Kennedys. Sort them by name, such as Edward, Jack, Jacqueline, John, and Rose.
    • If you’re unsure where a book goes, check the call number. No matter what classification system your library uses, you can compare call numbers to figure out where a book fits on the shelf.
  7. 7
    Glance at the shelves for books placed in the wrong spot. Before putting a book back where it belongs, look along the shelf for anything that has been put into the wrong place. On average, try to look about 4 spots to the left and right of where you plan on placing a book. Use the call number tags as a reference. If a book appears to be in the wrong spot, pull it off the shelf.[7]
    • If you don’t pay attention to the call numbers, you could end up putting a book in the wrong place. You might spot a similar call number and place a book next to it only to realize that both of them belong elsewhere.
    • If you spot any loose books scattered around, take them with you to shelve them later. Books that are only slightly out of place can be shelved right away. For books that are far from where they belong, take them to the circulation desk to ensure they haven’t been reported as missing.
  8. 8
    Neaten the shelves to keep them accessible to patrons. It wouldn’t be right if the books didn’t look inviting to potential readers! Position the books so the spines face outward and are flush with the front edge of the shelf. Also, leave a little bit of space on the shelves so the books stay standing but are still easy to remove. You can test this by attempting to pull books out after shelving them.[8]
    • If you pack the books too tightly, you won’t be able to pull them out easily and may end up losing some through the back end of the shelf. However, if you pack them too loosely, they may fall over and leave a bigger mess.
    • If you don’t have enough space for books on a shelf, then plan on moving some to a different shelf. Check with any available librarians to make sure this is okay.

Method 2 of 3:
Using the Dewey Decimal System to Shelve Books

  1. 1
    Check the first digit of the call number to determine the book’s subject. The Dewey Decimal System is a handy classification method used by most public libraries. Essentially, every subject is assigned a category number you can use to group individual books. Librarians place a tag on the book’s spine that displays its unique call number. The system consists of 10 classes:[9]
    • 000 corresponds with books on computer science, information, and general works.
    • 100 stands for philosophy and psychology.
    • 200 represents books on religion.
    • 300 is for social sciences
    • 400 is reserved for books on language.
    • 500 corresponds to pure science.
    • 600 stands for technology and applied science.
    • 700 represents arts and recreation.
    • 800 means literature.
    • 900 relates to history and geography.
  2. 2
    Use the second digit to more specifically classify the book’s subject. The remaining digits in the call number are for subdivisions used in the classification system. Always read them after noting the broader category the book belongs to. The second digit breaks books down into slightly more specific categories. There are over 100 subcategories, so look for them at
    • For example, books on astronomy have a call number of 520. The 5 classifies it as a science book, while the 2 corresponds to astronomy.
    • Another example is an English language book with a call number of 420. The 4 places it in the language section while the 2 identifies it as a book about English.
  3. 3
    Look at the third digit for an additional subdivision. The third digit is an extra classification explaining the book’s subject matter. It is meant to be used after classifying the book through the previous digits. When you take the book to the proper shelf, you can then group it with other books that have the same starting call number. Read about the 1,000 subdivisions at[10]
    • For instance, you may see an astronomy book labeled 523. The 3 means the book is about planets and other objects in space. In comparison, a book about Earth will be listed as 525.
    • Another example is an American literature book. Its call number starts with an 8 for American literature, followed by a 1 for some category of literature. An 811 means poetry, an 812 means drama, and so on.
  4. 4
    Read the decimal number to organize books with the same call number. The decimal number is called the book’s cutter number. It is used to sort books up into even smaller categories, but you won’t be able to figure this out unless you’re looking at the library’s organizing system on a computer. However, it can still help you shelve books in numerical order. The author’s name will be listed at the end of the cutter number as well.[11]
    • For example, a cutter number of 595.789 corresponds to a book about butterflies. The call number directs you to the natural science section. The cutter number then gives you a more precise idea of what the book is about.
    • For an American literature book, a call number of 813.4 represents an American literature book written between 1861 and 1900. The 813 tells you the book is about American fiction, while the .4 narrows it down to a certain time period.
    • More digits in the call number mean a more specific subject. Think of each digit as a separate subdivision.

Method 3 of 3:
Shelving with the Library of Congress System

  1. 1
    Read the first letter in the call number to determine the book’s subject matter. The Library of Congress classification system (LCC) breaks books down into 20 separate areas of knowledge. Each one corresponds to a certain letter of the alphabet. This letter will always be the first thing you see listed on the call number tag on a book’s spine.[12]
    • A is for general works, which includes encyclopedias, newspapers, and other collections.
    • B represents philosophy, religion, and psychology.
    • C denotes auxiliary history, including biographies, genealogy, and archaeology.
    • D represents world history.
    • E is specifically reserved for American history.
    • F is also used for American history, but it covers local U.S. history and Latin America.
    • G is for books on geography and anthropology.
    • H contains books on social sciences like economics and sociology.
    • J lists books on political science.
    • K contains any books on law.
    • M is for all music books.
    • N categorizes books on fine art, like architecture and painting.
    • P includes books on language and linguistics.
    • Q has general science and math books.
    • R is reserved for medicine and medical books.
    • S is saved for books on agriculture.
    • T represents books on technology.
    • U is all about military science.
    • V covers naval science.
    • Z contains bibliographies and library science books.
  2. 2
    Check the second letter to determine the book's subcategory. Each knowledge category is broken down into smaller subdivisions you can use when shelving. After taking the book to the proper section, read the second letter to arrange it according to its subject matter. It belongs with books that have the same letters in their call numbers. For a list of subdivisions, go to[13]
    • For example, The Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger has a call number of PS3537. The P stands for language, but the S narrows it down to American literature.
  3. 3
    Sort the books from left to right according to the call number. The rest of the call number tag contains a string of digits. It isn’t as confusing as it first seems and makes sorting books very easy. Read the whole number, then arrange the books in order. Find similar call numbers to find out where a book fits on a shelf.[14]
    • For example, “PS3537 A426 C3 1951” is the full call number for The Catcher In The Rye. It comes between PS3536 and PS3538 on a shelf.
  4. 4
    Place earlier editions before older editions of the same book. The year at the end of the call number indicates when the book was published. Always arrange the editions from left to right. Most libraries don’t carry multiple editions, but it’s a possibility with older books that were popular enough to be printed several times.[15]
    • For instance, you may have a 1951 and 1991 edition of The Catcher In The Rye. Place the 1951 edition before the 1991 one.
    • Multiple editions of the same book have the same call number. Only the year differs, so look for it at the end of the call number.

Community Q&A

Add New Question
  • Question
    How do I organize my adult education special library books?
    wikiHow Staff Editor
    Top Answerer
    They usually belong in the educational section. Look for LC in the Library of Congress system or 371 in the Dewey Decimal System.
  • Question
    How do I find call numbers of books on the internet?
    wikiHow Staff Editor
    Top Answerer
    The numbers can be difficult to find outside of a library computer system. One way is to search a library's catalogue and, if they have the book, they might have the call number listed as well. You could also search the book's name and call number, since some seller websites list the call number too.
  • Question
    How do I learn the shelving order in a library?
    wikiHow Staff Editor
    Top Answerer
    You can read online resources to get accustomed to how the system works. For a more hands-on approach, try asking a librarian for help. Some libraries offer free lessons on how to locate books. You can also gain a lot of insight by walking around and checking the call number tags on the book to get an idea the library's classification system.
  • Question
    Would historical fiction books be classified under fiction or history?
    Community Answer
    All books that qualify as fiction would be classified under fiction. The history section is for non-fiction historical titles.
  • Question
    How are children's books shelved?
    Community Answer
    Shelve them alphabetically by author surname in the category they are in: easy reader, picture books etc.
  • Question
    How do I shelves books with four letters and four numbers?
    Amy Flugel
    Community Answer
    If you mean books that have fewer numbers/letters, it depends. Drew would come before Drewer, because spaces after letters are treated as coming before the letter A. With numbers, 793.4 comes before 793.43, but it comes after 793.389.
  • Question
    How do I assign Dewey Decimal call numbers to books?
    Community Answer
    You will first have to do a subject analysis on the book to decide which main class the book belongs to. Then you will have to keep breaking down the sub-classes by referring to information found in the Tables (Dewey Decimal 'rules' on how to class subjects). It can become a bit complicated. Many books have already been given Dewey Decimal numbers. You can find this information on the title page verso where the publishing and cataloging information is found.
  • Question
    What is the proper way to file a series of books?
    Community Answer
    Shelve in series order if you can see the series lable on the spine. If not, shelve alphabetically according to title.
  • Question
    How do I shelf a general science book that has an applied science number?
    Community Answer
    If you shelf them according to numbers it will be easier for you to find the book you are looking for.
  • Question
    How are books usually shelved in a middle school library?
    Community Answer
    They are shelved according to subject, then author.
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      • Call numbers are always read from left to right and top to bottom. No matter what system you use, the call numbers are simple and straightforward.
      • All library books, no matter what organization system they are classified under, are meant to be shelved from left to right and top to bottom.
      • Note that all libraries have different rules. Even if libraries use the same classification system, they may have slightly different shelving guidelines that differ from what you are used to.
      • To shelve books faster, organize them in a cart by genre. Arrange them by call number so you can scan across the correct shelf and place them where they belong.
      • If you have a question or run into a problem while shelving books, speak with a librarian for assistance. One of their responsibilities is to ensure all books are labeled and placed neatly on shelves.


      • Book classification systems are complex, so attempting to memorize them can be a frustrating experience. Instead of memorizing it all, learn the main classifications and subdivisions, then use the library’s computer system if you need more help pinpointing specific books.

      About This Article

      Co-Authored By:
      wikiHow Staff Editor
      This article was co-authored by our trained team of editors and researchers who validated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness. Together, they cited information from 15 references. wikiHow's Content Management Team carefully monitors the work from our editorial staff to ensure that each article meets our high standards.
      15 votes - 100%
      Co-authors: 6
      Updated: November 27, 2019
      Article SummaryX

      The most common way to shelve books in a library is to use the Dewey Decimal System, which groups books of the same subject together. With this system, every book is categorised into 10 main sections. For example, 100 is “Philosophy and Psychology,” 500 is “Science,” and 800 is “Literature.” Within each category, there are subcategories which have their numbers in the 10s place. Within each subcategory, there are more classifications, which are shown in the ones place. For instance, a book with a call number of “813.4,” tells you that the book is American fiction written between 1861 and 1900. For more tips, including how to shelve books using the Library of Congress Classification System, read on!

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