Project 5: Book inventory

To start off the discussion of detailed lists in spreadsheets, here’s a simple example: a book inventory. While this project focuses on books the techniques it demonstrates can be used for almost any sort of inventory. I’ve always wanted to make an inventory of all the recipes I’ve collected, so I never again have to wonder which book/index card box/folder had that delicious recipe I’m looking for at any given time. An inventory like this is also good for insurance purposes!

In my house, there are Many Books. I like to buy and read books, and publishers like to sell books, so you’d think that would be a nice, simple exchange. But not only does is my memory a sieve less than perfect, I have occasionally found myself at the bookstore thinking “Hmmm, I know I love the author, and the cover art/back of the book description doesn’t look familiar…” only to buy it, read it, and realize that the publishers had repackaged a book I already own.

Thus the book inventory was born. The first step in any inventory is to figure out what you want to know about what you’re inventorying. In the case of books there are some obvious things to list: title, author, series, and possibly its position in the series. Genre could be a good one, as could publisher. Why publisher, you ask? Well, at one point a local bookstore seemed to be running periodic sales on various publishers’ books. For example, this week all books from publisher A would be buy-3-get-1-free, and another week it would be the same deal, but for publisher B. In a situation like this it suddenly becomes quite valuable to know which series were published by whom, and whether there are any holes that need to be filled.

Rating’s another thing that could be valuable. By giving a numeric rating immediately after reading a new book, I can help jog my memory next time I’m randomly looking for a good book from the collection. Or the next time I feel the need to weed the collection. I also tend to keep a list of books that I’ve gotten rid of, both so I can figure out what happened if I happen to vaguely remember having it, and so I can check to see whether an author I don’t recognize is truly new, or merely so un-memorable that I forgot them after selling anything I’d bought by them.

A column for binding can be useful. I mostly use the “binding” column when I’m trying to figure out what shelf a book might be on (paperbacks line the walls of the TV room, but most of the hardbound books are out in the front room), but it can also be useful when trying to make sure that all the books in a given series have the same binding.

Lastly, I recommend having a column for “notes”. This column can help you figure out what other information you need. My “notes” column has entries like “doorstop”, “signed”, and “fragile”. “Doorstop” means that it’s a very thick book, and so it might be out of order due to how useful it is as a bookend. “Signed” means that the author has signed it for me – these don’t go into humidity controlled glass cases, but I am more careful with them than I am with the average mass-market paperback. “Fragile” means that the book is, for some reason, fragile. Maybe the glue was weak, and the pages are falling out. It might not merit any special treatment, but if I see a replacement I might pick it up.

It also has entries like “contains”, and a list of the relevant short stories in a collection, or the individual books in an omnibus edition. This way if I’m looking at another edition with the same book, it’s easier to figure that out.

Therefore, my book inventory might look something like this.

Title Author Series Publisher Genre Rating Binding Notes
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish Adams, Douglas Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Del Ray Humor 3 paperback
The Warrior’s Apprentice Bujold, Lois McMaster Vorkosigan Baen sf 5 paperback signed
The Chanur Saga Cherryh, C.J. Chanur Daw sf 4 paperback contains “pride of”, “chanur’s venture” & “kif strike back”

Are these all the fields anyone might need for a book inventory? Of course not! Kids aren’t part of the equation, so reading level isn’t something I need to record. I also don’t record pages, illustrations, publication date, price, or ISBN. They could be valuable in some people’s inventories, but they aren’t in mine.
There are also fields that have been added to the inventory on a temporary basis. The last time we moved, for example, we made a note of which box each book went into. This let us get everything back into order much more quickly than we had in previous moves!

In summary, these are the steps to take to make a book inventory.

  1. Make a list of everything you want to record about your books.
  2. Separate the list into “frequent” and “infrequent” things. Frequent things are pieces of information that are recorded about nearly every book. For example, most books have a title you’ll want to record, so that would be “frequent”. Infrequent things, on the other hand, are recorded about only a few books. Autographed books, for example, are sufficiently rare that books can be assumed to be unsigned unless it’s specified otherwise, so that would be “infrequent” information.
  3. Set up one column header for each “frequent” thing in your list.
  4. Set up a “notes” column header, for information about all the “infrequent” things in your list.
  5. Go to the next row, grab a book from your collection, and start typing. It helps if you have a good typist at your disposal. However, you won’t have to type everything, every time. Most spreadsheets will try to auto-complete as you type, if they think you’re entering a list. Therefore if you have already entered books by, say, Douglas Adams, Lois McMaster Bujold, and C. J. Cherryh, then as soon as you type A, B, or C in that column the program will offer you the rest of the name and all you’ll need to do is accept it and move to the next column. (Assuming you’re entering them last-name first.) If you added Steven Brust to the mix then you’d have to start typing two letters (bu for Bujold, or br for Steven Brust), but the end result would be the same.