6 Ways to Upgrade Your Bookshelf, According to a Private Librarian

published Feb 8, 2022
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

While working as a public librarian at the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming, Christy Shannon Smirl’s career veered unexpectedly off course. A woman stopped by the library and asked if Smirl could help organize her personal collection of books and design a library at her home. Smirl took on the project as a weekend side gig — and that chance encounter eventually morphed into a full-fledged career.

For the past five years, Smirl has worked as a private librarian, helping homeowners to create book-filled home sanctuaries that match their style and incorporate their ideal reading lists. Through her company, Foxtail Books & Library Services, Smirl has created a hybrid job that combines her love of books and her love of design: She’s part interior decorator, part rare book buyer, part professional organizer, and part researcher. 

“I want to help book people create a really beautiful space but also a really meaningful space,” she says. “That entails knowing their interests, knowing what books they’re excited about, and knowing their interior design style to make something that works together in unison.”

If you’re at a loss for how best to organize and style your bookshelves, here are Smirl’s best tips for creating the home library of your dreams.

Be Your Own Librarian

So you probably didn’t get a degree in library science — and that’s okay. You can still look at your collection of books through the eyes of a seasoned librarian or bookstore owner. 

“Consider how your collection works for you, for your space, and then make a plan,” Smirl says. “Is the collection just the right size organically, or could it use some downsizing? Could it grow? Are there topics you love that aren’t yet reflected on your bookshelves? Are there favorite books you would get a special edition of? Are there local classics, wherever you live, that a visitor might enjoy in your guest room?”

Mix Books With Other Decor

If your bookshelves are jam-packed with books — and books alone — give them some breathing room by adding in other decor pieces. “Consider making it look more eclectic to balance out the books — books look great with a mix of other materials,” Smirl says. “When I’m looking for objects like bookends, antiques, and other design pieces, I try to find a mix of metal, stone, leather, ceramics, or even things like basketry.”

Pro tip: Also remember that dark objects disappear into dark shelves (and wood objects disappear into wooden bookshelves), so aim for lighter-colored, non-wood decor, Smirl says.

Plan Your Color Scheme

Consider your books in the broader context of your desired color palette for the space, Smirl says. “Books bring a lot of color to a room, especially contemporary books, which is great, but it is also a lot of visual stimulation,” she says. “People love a giant wall of books, but just remember how much color might be involved when making other decisions like paint, furniture, and objects. Sometimes going neutral might be better.”

Think Like a Designer

Your shelves aren’t just sterile book storage vessels — they’re as much a part of your home’s decor as any other piece of furniture. Look at them through an interior design lens, Smirl says.

“What subject or what type of book is at eye level, compared to things on the top and bottom shelves — and does it matter?” Smirl says. “Is there balance from shelf to shelf? For example, are things oriented to the left or right, or does the orientation alternate? Is there a lot on one shelf and not on the other? How are you balancing that visually?”

Make Your Own Rules

The internet can be a great source of inspiration, but it can also be overwhelming. Smirl recommends charting your own course instead.

“There are just a million really opinionated directives about books out there — people who think you should Marie Kondo them, people who think you should keep everything,” she says. “People have really strong feelings about the rainbow organizational scheme. And that’s not even to mention literary judgment — what’s high-brow, what’s impressive, what’s tacky. At the end of the day, these are your books and they’re a very personal part of your home, so you should do whatever you want with them and throw caution and design rules to the wind.”

Follow Your Curiosity

No matter how you choose to style your books, remember what they’re actually all about. It varies from person to person (and book to book), but reading can help us learn something new, escape to another world, understand another culture, and practice self-care, just to name a few benefits.

“I just encourage people to take their books seriously, which maybe sounds a little cheesy, but it’s a way of taking yourself and the things you’re interested in seriously,” says Smirl. “Being intentional about your books is a way of saying, ‘This is me, my mind, my dreams, all here on a shelf,’ and a life of curiosity — reading all sorts of things, learning new things, starting books but not finishing them, maybe becoming obsessed with a particular topic and then changing your mind — that’s a good life. Just dive into it, enjoy it, and show it off.”