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Our shul library has been neglected for many, many years, and b'h' we are finally cleaning and organizing it. I am used to using a library, not organizing it! So I wonder if anyone can give me some feedback on a good way to organize the library? I can easily think of a series of categories (Chumash, commentaries on chumash, halachah, Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, Philosophy), but I'd like to know what categories are most commonly used. Also, sometimes it is hard to determine whether a particular book belongs in one category or another --- are there any resources that can give some guidance (like a good library's card catalog available online)?

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I was, for a while, unofficially in charge of my synagogue's library, and we had it organized as follows (as well as I can recall). The guiding principle was that things should be where people will look for them.

  1. Sidurim for daily use had their own section. (Sections, really, in more than one place in the room.) The non-standard ones, not used by most people, were on separate shelves from the popular ones.
  2. Chumashim for daily (or weekly) use had their own section. There were Hebrew-English ones and Hebrew-only ones, and they were shelved separately from one another.
  3. Books written in English (as opposed to Hebrew-English books, which were mostly shelved with Hebrew books of the same sort) were shelved separately from other books and all together. There weren't very many of these, but to the extent possible they were divided by philosophy/musar/advice vs. stories vs. halacha vs. Tanach.
  4. Tanach and commentaries were in one case. This included chumashim for study, such as Rabbi Kaplan's (Hebrew-English) and mikraos g'dolos.
  5. G'mara was in one case. This was in shas order: all the B'rachos volumes were together, followed by all the Shabas volumes, etc.
  6. But ArtScroll g'mara was shelved separately from the rest.
  7. Mishnayos were in one section: Yachin Uvoaz on one shelf; K'hasi on another; ArtScroll on another two or so.
  8. Musar and philosophy books were in another section.
  9. Halacha had its own section.
  10. Commentaries on g'mara were in one section; this included commentaries on Mishne Tora (like Or Sameach), since those are generally studied when learning g'mara. These were in alphabetical order by title (because there were so many). The title used was the common one, not the official one. (Hence, Dibros Moshe under dalet but Bes Hab'chira under mem for "M'iri".)
  11. Sh'elos Us'shuvos had their own section, near halacha.
  12. Reference books had their own section: dictionaries, a concordance, Feliks's book on animals and plants, and some others.

I've probably omitted some books from that list (e.g. I notice now that Mishne Tora and (Minchas) Chinuch aren't on the list, and I don't recall now where they were shelved), but the idea should be pretty clear.

Each shelf had a label indicating the type of book on it.

Some further ideas:

  1. When I was in y'shiva, a sign on the bookcase listed the sections of Mishne Tora and what books they could be found in, so people could easily find citations. A sign can also list chapters of shas and the tractates they can be found in (though those are less necessary, since most citations by chapter name are followed immediately by a later editor's helpful reference including the tractate name).
  2. I recall being somewhere that had most of its copies of shas in one area but one copy across the room for people to look things up in easily. This works if there are sufficiently many copies of shas, and can be done with other works, too.
  3. A map (diagram) on the wall indicating the locations of various types of books (such as public libraries often have) can help.

You ask:

Also, sometimes it is hard to determine whether a particular book belongs in one category or another --- are there any resources that can give some guidance (like a good library's card catalog available online)?

Good question. Even with such resources (and, no, sorry, I don't know of any), there'll be ambiguity. Should commentaries on Mishne Tora be among the commentaries on shas, since they're studied with g'mara, or should they be with halacha books, since they're commentaries on a halacha book? T'rumas Hadeshen, though written as if it were sh'elos us'shuvos, is usually studied when tracing the history of halacha (unlike modern sh'elos us'shuvos books, which are studied when determining modern halacha), so should it be shelved with halacha books rather than with sh'elos us'shuvos books? Should Sefer Hamitzvos of the Rambam be shelved with his Mishne Tora, which it serves as an introduction to, or with Chinuch, since both are mone hamitzvos? Should Aruch be with dictionaries or with commentaries on g'mara? Etc., etc., etc. I do not think a categorization scheme exists that allow all your users to find everything in the place they first expect it; if your library is big enough, consider a card catalogue.

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+1 for "K'hasi" –  jake Nov 12 '13 at 19:16

This is a bit of a side point, but I think it really is a crucial aspect of organizing a useful shul library.

If you want the library to have lasting value, you need to have a system in place for maintaining its order. If there is no such system, then people's use of the library (hopefully robust!) will result in increasing disorder over time, eliminating a great deal of the value of whatever system of organization you started with.

For example, when I was at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh, there was a system called "toranut sefarim" ("book [-ordering] rotation") wherein one night each week, a small team of students was tasked with sweeping through the Study Hall, collecting all books that belonged on shelves and were sitting out, and carting them to their correct locations on the shelves. (I may have some of the details wrong, but I have the basic idea.) This process was aided by the fact that the books had colored tape on them to visually indicate which section they belonged in. With this system in place to regularly restore order, it was guaranteed that the book collection would never get unmanageably out of order.

So, I recommend establishing some sort of regular order-restoration from the beginning, preferably with the burden spread out over a large base of helpers. The more people involved, the less work each has to do. In the extreme, if one person ends up shouldering the entire burden, there's a strong potential for eventual burn-out or for disorder to set in if that person goes on vacation, moves away, or loses interest. Another benefit of getting many people involved is that anyone who has to help with restoring order is more likely to, as a user, put books back where they belong in the first place, and a culture of people doing that makes the task of the order-restorers even lighter.

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I emailed R' Jeremy Meyerowitz, a Public Services Librarian at the JTS Library, and he provided the following information (edited for format and link styling):

I would recommend the website of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). They have many resources to help different types of Jewish Libraries, including, shul libraries. They also have a listserv called ha-Safran that can be joined.

In regards to the specific question that was asked, I would recommend visiting AJL’s wiki where you will find a whole section on this topic. There you will find information about various classification schemes, including the Elazar classification scheme and the Weine classification scheme. These schemes are very popular with synagogue libraries. The wiki compares the schemes and gives links that tell you how to obtain a scheme and learn how to use it. There is also information on many other areas that concern synagogue libraries, such as policies, fundraising, cataloging, and circulation.

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There are no general conventions used, and from my learning I have never come across any seforim that discuss this topic, however I recommend organizing a library based on topics, rather than authors. This means, instead of having for example all of the Chazon Ish's works in one area (both his works on Hashkafa and Mishna) separate his works into topics. This is the general system that I use for my (somewhat-) extensive library of seforim that I have on my computer, and is based on my understanding of efficiency and being in many seforim libraries.

  • Biographies/Jewish History (split up if necessary)
  • Chassidus
  • Halacha (obviously split up to meet needs of library)
  • Kabalah
  • Machshava (classical Jewish thought from the Rishonim and back is how I would classify this)
  • Sifrei Chazal, and Meforshei Sifrei Chazal (split up if necessary)
  • Misc.
  • Mussar (Acharonim time and present day works)
  • Stories
  • Books On Tefilla

Chumash Nach

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