Home Library Builders: Buying and Organizing Books


Several months ago, when I started this Home Library Builders series, I promised to write a post about finding books and organizing your library. This is a topic near and dear to my heart…I am always on the lookout for a treasure!

I use Tapestry of Grace, a curriculum centered around living books. Some weeks I might use as many as 20 different books for my students. My children are getting a rich and broad education, but it can be a strain on the budget and difficult to stay organized.

So what is my strategy?

Planning ahead

First, I take a look at my book lists, week by week. Tapestry gives me a breakdown of all the books I need every week, for a total of 36 book lists in all. I put each week’s list in a page protector, so I can mark on it with a Sharpie marker, without defacing the reading list. Tapestry is a classical program, which means that four years from now, I’ll be repeating this material again, albeit at a more advanced level for each child. My current 3rd grader will be reading books that his 7th grade brother read this year, and my preschooler will need the books my 3rd grader is reading. It helps to keep a record of what we have and what we need and what we liked so that I can refer to it in future years. By marking on a page protector, I can make notes that will help me now and in the future. Four years from now, I can slip off the old protector and replace it with a fresh one, making notes for a new trip through the material.

Decisions, decisions!

Tapestry gives me lots of choices. If I don’t have a given book, there are several alternates listed. As a general rule, I try very hard to get all the literature books that are recommended, as there is only one Huckleberry Finn. I often am able to substitute history titles with something that is already on my shelves. If I don’t have a certain geography book about Japan, but another similar title is already on my shelf, I make a note of the title I’ll be substituting on the page protector. By staying flexible and being willing to substitute equivalent titles I can save my budget for those must-have books.

Keeping my Options Open

Next, I open several windows on the computer. One is for my local library system, a window for Amazon, a window for Better World Books, a window for My Audio School, a window for Audible, and a window for Baldwin Project.

I look at each book on the list, checking how many weeks it will be used. Anything that will only be used for one week is typically at the top of my library list. I do a quick search and if the book is available through Inter-library Loan, I mark an L on the page protector by that title. When the time comes, I’ll order it through the library. My library can be slow, so I don’t use it for critical or time-sensitive titles. Often, I’ll order the suggested resource as well as all the alternates, and use whichever one comes in on time.

The library is a great place to get those hardback picture books for my young children. Those are expensive to buy, and typically will be read a couple of times and then put away. They are often readily available through the Inter-library Loan system.

Once I’ve gone through the titles, choosing which ones will be substituted and which ones will come from the library, I take a look at how to get what is left. Anything that is going to be used for multiple weeks, or which is critically important to our study, or which cannot be substituted (such as literature titles) is a good candidate for purchase. I have several children, and I know I’ll be using most of these books again.

Getting Books for Free

First, I check the free sites. Many of the old, classic literature titles are available in the public domain. Baldwin Project has lots of these titles available for free. There are also many available through Gutenberg Project, but I prefer the easy-to-navigate format at Baldwin Project. I don’t like sitting in front of a computer screen to read aloud, but my children don’t seem to mind silent reading from the screen. This is a good choice for us for those books.

Of course, I always check My Audio School, too! I say “check” even though this is my own website.  We have over 500 resources on the site now and I can’t even remember all the titles myself, LOL.

I can’t tell you how much money we’ve saved this year by listening to our books in audio format from public domain sources! It has been such a blessing to our dyslexic son and our emerging reader, and has saved my voice, too! I still read daily to them, but this gives them extra audio content while I am busy. My oldest son loves it as he can multi-task, listening to books in audio format while cleaning his room or building models. We stream the books from the computer, burn them to CD or download them to Mp3.

It does take a lot of time searching out these free resources. Now that I’ve done the work for you, you might want to take advantage of what My Audio School has to offer. Lots of free books are on the site, and for the cost of purchasing just one audio book you get links to hundreds of resources. Every single book on the site is available to download to Mp3, or individual chapters can be streamed from the site. I’ve also included links where you can read the books for free online.

Paperback Swap is another site I use for getting free titles. You post books that you no longer want online. In exchange for offering up 10 titles, you get two credits for free. Each credit allows you to request one book. Anytime someone requests one of your books and you send it to them, you get another credit. I’ve gotten a few of the books I need for next year for free through PBS. They make it very easy to mail the books, as you can print shipping labels and even postage from home if you have a paypal account.

Buy Used and Save the Difference

Next, I check Better World Books. This gem is my favorite place to get books. The used books are all donated by libraries, and used titles typically cost around $4 apiece. Profit from all sales goes to support literacy efforts around the world, and shipping is virtually free within the continental U.S. (and very cheap to other countries). Better World uses carbon offsets for shipping, and I typically pay about 10 cents shipping on $10 worth of books. I also like Thrift Books for used titles. I like to refer to amazon to read their reviews, and occasionally I’ll buy a book from them, as well. Their shipping is so high now for used books that sometimes you can get the title brand new with free shipping for little more than the used title would have cost.

Books on MP3

Although we use our website My Audio School for public domain books, Audible is another good source for audio books that aren’t in the public domain. My curriculum makes suggestions for each child’s literature. Several times a year I choose one selection from my oldest child’s list and we read it aloud as a family or listen to it on MP3. We all enjoy these family read-alouds. They are not at a level that my young children could read them alone, but they are perfectly able to enjoy and understand them as a read-aloud. Rather than purchasing three separate books for that week, I can get one excellent audio book that we can all enjoy together.

Other sites

I also check Tapestry’s Bookshelf Central, as they have competitive pricing on many of the books that are recommended as primary resources. Book Closeouts is another favorite site for classics and biographies purchased inexpensively. One more site that I regularly check is Library and Ed, a wholesaler that only sells to libraries, educators and homeschoolers.

Book Sales

Usually, anything I haven’t found online goes on a list which I keep in my purse. When I head out to spring books sales, my list goes with me. I’ve been known to drill this list into my 12 year old’s head, so he can be on the lookout, too! Last week I bought an R.M. Ballantyne book for 50 cents at a book sale…the seller must not have known what she had! I came home a happy girl, indeed.

Of course, I watch “for sale” boards on my yahoo groups, and borrow books from friends, as well. Once a book has been downloaded or purchased or borrowed, a notation on the page protector reminds me that it is taken care of.

Organizing books…don’t knock it ’till you try it

I have a system for organizing my history and literature books. Since the classical cycle lasts four years, I label my books accordingly. All books for Ancient Times get a red dot on the spine of the book. I use the little dots purchased for tagging garage sale items, and secure them with a small piece of scotch tape to the spine of the book (as the sticky back doesn’t adhere well to the spines without a little help).

Before taping the label on, I write a number on the spine to show which week it will be used. Number 1 for our first week of school, or 2-5 if the book will be used weeks two through five. Then all the books are arranged in order on a particular shelf…one shelf for my oldest child’s books, another shelf for my younger children’s books. This helps me to see at a glance exactly what we have, and to find it easily throughout the year.

Since we are literally using hundreds of books a year, spread out over different grade levels, this system of organization is a lifesaver for me.

Books for Renaissance and Reformation get a yellow dot. Green dots are for the time period from Napoleon to Teddy Roosevelt, and a blue dot adorns the spine of all books about modern times. I have a couple of shelves for each color. Next year, we’ll be studying Renaissance and Reformation…but if I find a great book that I’ll need for Modern Times at a book sale this spring, I’ll go ahead and buy it. Purchasing books in advance, when the price is right, is another way to save money.

I won’t need to purchase many titles at all for next year, because I’ve been collecting the books I need little by little for the past few years. And thanks to my system of organization, all of my Modern Times books are labeled and together. If I find something new, I know right where to put it, and I can feel confident that it will be there in three years when I need it.

The next post in this Home Library Builders series will be Whatever is Excellent: My favorite books for the Classical history cycle

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8


  1. What great ideas! I’ll look into the resources you mentioned soon. I plan to establish our home library in the near future. I was considering magazine racks by theme or putting grade levels together. However, I really like the idea of the dots and a grade number or letter. I like that it would be easily accessible for my children after the year is through and would save on cost. Maybe I’ll still do magazine racks for the really thin books for kids. (Sorry for rambling here . . . just thinking aloud!)

  2. Thanks for the reminder about Librivox. We’ll be doing Year 2 next year as well and there are several Marshall books on my list!

  3. Cynthia says:

    your blog has been a wonderful help to me! I was a bit overwhelmed with all those year 1 binders I just got, so thank you so much. I do have a question WHERE are the weekly book lists? are you using the yellow reading assignment pages?

  4. Cynthia,
    Email me privately and I’ll discuss this with you. Are you using TOG classic or Redesigned?

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