July 7, 2020

How to develop and use a personal library to improve yourself

A long time ago, before I started purchasing books, I read an article that said that there was a correlation between successful individuals and reading. The reading certainly did not lead to success, but it seemed that almost all successful people carve time out of their days to read. If you search through Google for someone successful and book recommendations, you will likely find a hit.

From that point on, I made it a point to do a lot of reading. But I didn’t have a lot of money to spare on books. Nor did my city have a lot of used bookstores at the time. And even if I did have the money to purchase books, which books were worth purchasing? Here are some of the things that I learned through developing my personal library.

How to develop a personal library

The following are the lessons I have learned developing my library.

Use the library to understand your interests

In my early days, when I couldn’t afford to purchase any of the books that I saw on bookstore shelves, I frequently went to the library. Many days, after work, I would stop by the library and browse through the books. Then, I got a little smarter and started searching through the online catalogs. But I still enjoyed walking through the shelves because they were grouped by subject matter and I could quickly see which authors had written multiple books, which books stood out for me and I could easily pick it up and read a few pages to see if it interested me further.

The online catalog, while convenient, brought a whole slew of books that were grouped by topic, but it was hard to gauge whether it was a book that I was interested in without reading a few random pages. I did make use of the online catalog more when I did not live so close to the library.

Take note of which books and authors influence your thinking

As you start to read, you will see what authors and books you like. Maybe it is the author’s writing style. Maybe it is the way the book is formatted. Of course, it could also be the content of the books. Don’t worry about which books you like at this point, just note down the books that you do like until you get to 30 – 50 ‘favourite’ books.

From the 30 – 50 books, you can start to see patterns in what you like. Are there multiple books from the same authors on your list? Certain subject matters? How about published date? Do you like historical classical books? Modern books?

Read reviews

While reviews is not the be-all and end-all of whether a book is good or not, it will give you a good idea of how many people liked it and whether it might be valuable to you. The more reviews and the more positive feedback a book has (on Amazon or other sites), the more likely it might be a book worth purchasing for your library.

Check out book recommendation lists

Remember the list of authors and topics that you liked before? Google ‘author’ + ‘book recommendations’ or ‘topic’ + ‘book recommendations’, and you will be able to see many more book recommendations, especially on books that may not be available at your library. I wouldn’t recommend you to purchase these books right away (unless you have a lot of disposable income), but I would recommend that you read through the lists so that you can familiarize yourself with the books for the next point.

Shop book sales and at used bookstores

Okay, so you have gone through and identified the authors and subject matters you like. You have looked through book recommendations so you understand what others have said are the ‘best’ books in a certain subject or that have been endorsed by authors you like.

I find that these books that have been ‘imprinted’ in your mind tend to pop out when you are browsing shelves. Or maybe that’s a unique quirk that I have. I often see books on reading lists and then when I visit book sales or used bookstores, they tend to be there when I least expect it.

Shopping at book sales and used bookstores is a great way to make your dollar go further. Another side benefit of shopping at used bookstores is that sometimes, the books have notes in them from the previous owner and you can see what interested them.

In fact, I love used bookstores so much that I make it a point to visit the used bookstore of any city I travel to (obviously taking into consideration the language).

Use gift cards

Any time I was able to get a gift card (through secret santa, random gifts at work, etc.), I would prioritize gift cards at places where I could purchase books. Amazon was always a good choice because it was more flexible than a Chapters gift card (and you are also able to purchase used books on Amazon that can make your dollar stretch farther).

It does not sound like much, but a few dollars here and there helped to add a few books to my personal library.


How to use your personal library

This section might sound weird to you. How do you ‘use’ your personal library? Don’t you just read the books in your library? That’s what I did when I started to grow a sizeable collection, except when you get to the hundred or more books range, you cannot possibly read and re-read all of your books, all of the time. You just don’t have the time for it. You have to be strategic. Nowadays, my reading has changed to become more strategic:

Journal

Where does journaling fit into reading? For me, journaling is a way to understand my thoughts and feelings about something on any particular day. For example, I may be having a tough day at work. Or I may have personal conflicts that I want to work through. I use my journal as a way to gain clarity and insight into what I am feeling, what I think may be my ‘options’, and how I want to work through it.

But that doesn’t mean that I always have the answers.

That’s where my personal library comes in.

Read broadly

I’ll take a few books on the subject and I’ll read quickly and broadly to understand the different perspectives and points of view of the different books. For example, I may have a problem employee at work that I find is hard to motivate. I might read The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. Then I might read Atomic Habits by James Clear to understand how people form habits and how I might be able to change or transform some of the habits of the employee. And then I might read Drive by Daniel Pink to understand what motivates people.

With the problem in my mind, I’ll read to understand the problem and to identify potential solutions. If you read a book looking for words that start with the letter ‘f’, you will find them. My point is that when a topic is at the top of your mind, you will start to make connections and associations with that topic as you read, similar to how if you are looking to purchase a car, you will start to see that particular car a lot more on the road than before.

Take notes

When I don’t have any topics or problems in mind, I will just read for ‘fun’. I will read whatever books catch my interest. Sometimes I’ll be interested in developing a more positive mindset. Other times, I’ll look to improve my productivity. Sometimes these are related to what I’m feeling and other times, just because I have an interest in them.

When I read books, I like to do a first pass where I note down which sections, passages or quotes have caught my eye. I’ll do this with post-it notes, though I have also seen other people write in their books, which scares me a little. Then, after, I will go back to the pages with post-it notes and write down my thoughts, essentially generating book notes that I can refer to later.

What do I do with the book notes? That may deserve a subsequent post, but I’ll use it for presentations, blog posts or other content.

Share with others

Recently, I have been trying to post at least once a week on LinkedIn on the things that I have learned from reading particular books. Most of the content tends to be professional (productivity, habits, etc.) given the audience on LinkedIn. Not only is this a good way to solidify your understanding (by teaching it to others), you also get to share your love of books with others.


Do you have a library at home? How did you develop it? How did you decide which books were worthy of purchase? How do you decide what new books to purchase?

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