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styling shelves with lots of books black and white shelf styling in dining room

Home Library Goals: Our Top 12 Tips on Styling Shelves with Lots of Books

Styling a shelf with lots of books takes a keen design eye to pull off correctly. And that’s probably why you’re here; to figure out the best way to style your shelves so that they look marvelous instead of messy (and boy can they turn messy real quick).

Whether you have a new office space at home and want to style some books in it, or you’re setting up a complete home library showcasing every book you’ve ever owned, today’s post has you covered.

The focus, it’s fair to say, is on larger bookshelves. I’ve covered off how to decorate smaller cube shelves on the blog before. But today we’re giving home libraries and big long shelves the attention they deserve. Because trust me, they can be show-stoppers. You just need to keep these 12 ideas and tips in mind and you’ll be a pro in no time.

white shaker shelf styling with books in home library
via room for tuesday

1. Firstly, Diagnose Which Bookshelf Situation You’re Styling

You’re in one of two camps when it comes to bookshelf styling. You’re either showcasing just a selection of books on one shelf (with the rest stored away somewhere else), or you’re putting every book you’ve ever owned on one real big bookshelf.

If you’re in the former category, you’re in the easier camp because there’s less work involved in getting the shelf to look nice. In fact, you could probably just look at the image below, read tip two and be on your way. Curating your book collection by colour is the best way to get the result you’re looking for.

The latter shelf styling category takes more time and care to get right, and often requires you to embrace the ‘crazy’ a little more. This is because there are just so many books in so many colours, sizes and heights to style. But it can be done, don’t worry. Regardless of which group you’re in, these bookshelf styling ideas should help.

dining room with large bookshelf styled with black and white books

2. Colour Curate the Whole Collection if you Can

If you’re styling a shelf with lots of books but not necessarily all the books you own, it’s a nice idea to develop a colour palette for the shelf and then select books that work in with that palette. The image above via Brosa is the perfect example of this styling idea at play.

Notice how all of the books on the large shelf are black, white or grey? Keeping all of the book spines to this confined colour story keeps the overall look refined, sophisticated and visually calm. You’ll notice that the other images in this post with more book spine colours in them feel more visually energetic.

You don’t have to adopt the same palette you see above, either. You could choose to include green spines in a beige colour story, for example, to make the bookshelf feel nature-inspired. You could opt for black, white and gold to have it feel rather luxe. The options are endless, but I’d keep the palette to no more than three main colours if you want it to retain a sense of cohesion.

large white bookshelf styled with coloured books in home office

3. Can’t Colour Curate? A White Bookshelf will Help

If you’re styling a bookshelf with every book in your collection, there’s simply no way to cull the palette down to three or four main spine colours. It’s OK though; there are ways to make it feel less chaotic and busy, and one of them is to paint the shelves white (or buy white shelves if you’re starting from scratch).

Keeping your bookshelf white gives the entire backdrop of the space a neutral feel. Because there’s loads of colours going on top, it’s nice to keep the shelf subdued. There are examples of shelves in this blog post that aren’t white (and the books are very colourful) but they’re not as ‘clean’ in appearance.

I’d take this principal a step further and keep the rest of your room fairly simplistic in terms of colours, so that the bookshelf becomes the main ‘moment’ in the room. The above photo via Houzz is a good example of this. The bookcase almost reads as a colourful work of art, rather than something too visually overwhelming.

large white bookshelf with books organised by colour grouped by colour

4. Group Sections of Books by Colour

You’ll also have to decide, when styling bookshelves with lots of books, whether you’re going to organise alphabetically by author, or if you can instead order them by what looks best. The latter option is way easier an approach, because it allows you to group books by colour, like in the image above via BH&G.

Notice how the shelves are white (bonus points!)? But on top of that each section of shelf is divided up and grouped by colour. There’s a section of white books, blue books, pink books and so on. It really does look rather easy on the eye even though there’s loads of colour at play.

This will only work though if you’re willing to give up a sense of order in terms of how you find a book. If you (or your partner) wants to group by author, and that author has 20 books of different sizes and colours, you won’t be able to group by colour.

Personally, this is one of those scenarios where it looks amazing, but isn’t the most practical.

home library with large white bookshelf styled with lots of books leather armchair
via pinterest

5. Don’t Leave Big Gaps at the Top of Your Books

Your big bookshelves are likely to be broken up into sections. The image above, for example, features a panel of wall that’s three shelves wide and eight shelves high. What you’ll also notice in this image is that the books are hugged above and below. What I mean is that there aren’t large gaps of nothing at the top of the books before you hit the next shelf.

This is a really successful way to make sure that this section of your home reads as a wonderfully organised library as opposed to a wasteland where random books are thrown anywhere without much thought. Large gaps = looks like you haven’t tried.

The best advice I can give you here is to opt for a bookshelf with adjustable shelves in it. That way you can assess which height works best for you and your individual collection. As a general rule, you want your shelf space to be between 25cm and 40cm high.

white shelf in home library styled with lots of books and decor

6. Ensure the Shelves are Symmetrical/Even

As mentioned, there are going to be a lot of colours going on, as well as size and shapes of books at play. So you want every other design element to be as simple as it can be so the books are the one ‘moment’.

Shelves at equal heights and widths are a good idea here to keep things looking as clean as they can be. The image above, for example, which is a gorgeously styled bookshelf, doesn’t follow this rule perfectly, and you’ll notice it looks a little messier than the others in this post.

See how there are big sections of squares in the unit, with the rest of the shelf sections rectangular? It’s a nice approach in terms of staging other elements that aren’t books, but it could look better if there was a sense of symmetry at play.

Of course, you may love the wild sense of abandonment here, so by all means go for a more anything-goes look if that’s your style.

warehouse apartment living room with oversized bookshelf styling

7. Stack Books Vertically and Horizontally

This one is a really important tip when styling bookshelves with lots of books. You want to make sure the books run vertically for the most part, but have certain sections where there are horizontal stacks as well.

Naturally, the horizontal books will be stacked largest at the bottom and smallest at the top. You kind of want the stack to resemble a pyramid or wedding cake. You can have dedicated sections for the horizontal stack, but you can also butt them up against a vertical run of books at the end of a shelf too.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the height of the horizontal stack should not be taller than the run of vertical books, otherwise it looks a bit odd and messy.

Also feel free to place horizontal stacks in the middle of a long run of vertical books. The image above showcases this idea and looks lovely.

white ikea bookshelves styled with books and decor
via ikea

8. Have ‘Breakout’ Cubes for Coffee Table Books & Decor

If you’re organising your home library in alphabetical order by author, there are probably going to be books in the collection that don’t quite fit in with the rest.

For example, my partner has loads and loads of novels (old ones, sci-fi/fantasy ones etc) and I have a whole stack of interior design and cooking books. Now, mine are more coffee table books, somewhat large and somewhat thick. They don’t really work with the collection. They’re more breakout books.

I call them breakout books because they need a breakout section within your shelving system. Don’t just have an entire 10-shelf bookshelf with lovely worn-out spines and then one section at the end with leftover books stacked apologetically.

Instead, create a few sections within the run of alphabetically-organised books for some coffee table book moments. You can also stage decor in these breakout boxes, which brings me onto my next point.

tall white bookshelf styled with lots of books in living room with grey sofa
via house beautiful

9. Fill Future Book Gaps with Decor

I’m not a fan of styling bookshelves with lots of books and nothing else. It just feels too serious and not personality-packed enough. The other thing is, you’re always going to get more books, right? So in each shelf section, if organising alphabetically, you’ll need to leave gaps to store future books in.

By popping some decor on top of a horizontal stack of books, or filling the end section of a shelf with an ornament, you’re allowing future books to be worked into the collection without having to rearrange the entire bookshelf (aint nobody got time for that!).

Clocks, vases, photo frames, small boxes, bowls, candelabras; the list is endless when it comes to the sorts of decorative objects you can work into the mix here. I advise you to think outside the box and make it personal too. This is your shelf in your home, after all!

bookshelf built in behind staircase in open plan warehouse apartment

10. Push Books to the Back of the Shelf

This one is a small tip but it has big impact. And put simply, it’s just this: push books toward the back of the shelf.

Your shelves are going to be no deeper than about 30cm or 40cm. So when sitting your books in a vertical row, push them back a little on the shelf so there’s a 10cm gap from the front of the shelf to the spine of the book. Just make sure the front spines are all lined up.

This seems like it won’t have much impact, but when there is a big bookshelf at play, it makes the books feel less overwhelming. And if you’ve installed a custom joinery bookshelf like the one above, you’ll want to see some of the shelf material you spent your hard-earned cash on.

colourful home library bookshelf with art hung over the top
via house beautiful

11. Art On Top Works a Treat Too

I only just noticed this idea myself when I was looking for images of the best home office libraries with bookshelves styled to perfection. And now that I’ve seen this idea it’s been in my head ever since.

I love the concept of an artwork installed over the top of your bookshelf. Yes, it might cover a few books, but you could leave sections behind it vacant if you have the space. I think it makes the entire home library you’ve got going on feel more designer. Like a curated art gallery.

I’m considering doing it in my own home with a clock I have. But really, any of your fave artworks (as long as they’re not too big) would work well here. Give it a try!

white shelf home library styled with lots of books
via home designing

12. Embrace the Crazy

Lastly, I have to advise, you kinda have to embrace the crazy when styling a bookshelf with lots of books. If you’re arranging in alphabetical order by author, the reality is that books will be different heights, colours, thicknesses and age (new spines versus older ones). There’s just no way to avoid this fact.

If you stress over the variations too much you’ll drive yourself mad. Instead, you have to embrace the crazy a little. If you’ve put all of the other tips and tricks above into practice then your bookshelf is going to look as well-styled as it can be.

But outside of doing all of the above, you have to allow your library to feel like a library. Homes are a reflection of who lives there, and they’re never perfect. So let this section of your interior be a little wild.

Are you feeling a bit more confident about styling a bookshelf with lots of books? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if there are some tricks you’ve implemented that haven’t been mentioned here.


Chris Carroll

Outside of writing this blog, Chris is an interior designer, presenter and author. He’s also spent time on TV, on Channel 10’s Changing Rooms, as well presenting segments on Channel 7’s Sunrise and The Morning Show. If you’d like to book a design consult with Chris, you can find out more here

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for not suggesting that you place the books the wrong way round – spines not showing. No-one who has a book collection large enough to need more than a single shelf could ever find anything again… yet I see this done so many times. An example of form over function… and utterly impractical. Your suggestions are very practical, for which, many thanks.

  2. Love the idea of stacking horizontally, and then vertically on top. It adds interest. I spent a lot of time on decorating our bookshelves in the hallway the other day, it was a lot of fun! One contains only kids’ books, they are a little hard to coordinate so definitely embracing the crazy with that one. For decorative items, to break up the “messiness”, I used some old nursery prints and Eric Carle cardboard stacking cubes. For the other shelves, in terms of decorating I’ve used a couple of vases, candles, a tray and some pretty photo albums. Plants also work a treat! I didn’t colour coordinate, it didn’t even occur to me. They’re curated by content.

  3. HI Chris, I’m a colour coder. I have most of my decor items (which are also colour coded to the books). Most of these are tall and behind the books. Am I doing it all wrong?

    1. Hey Glenda, sounds like your decor items are being hidden by the books. This might work for a moment here and there, where an item just peeks out from behind, but if they’re all back there you’re missing out on seeing them. Try mixing it up.

  4. Personally, I love the look of bookcases and don’t like anything too curated – that seems all style and no substance to me, but I am a big reader. There were some lovely ideas in this article and I loved that Ikea shelf.

    Interestingly, when I worked at a library, we pushed the books to the front of the shelf to neaten them, rather than back as suggested here. It always looked better after I’d done it (tidier), so the different colours didn’t seem to matter too much. I do the same at home and I believe it makes dusting easier as well.

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I’m interior designer Chris Carroll, and at TLC Interiors we’re all about helping you create an amazing home without breaking the bank. It’s affordable designer style at its best, and we make the whole process easy and fun for clients & readers alike!

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