Going Paperless: My Virtual Bookcases in Evernote

Some time back, I wrote a Going Paperless post called “Creating a Digital Version of Your House” in which I described how I use tools like Skitch and Penultimate to capture floor plans and measurements around the house that might be useful to have when I am away–say at the hardware store. While I was away on my Internet vacation, it occurred to me, as I was measuring my bookshelves, that it might be equally useful to have a digital version of my bookshelves in Evernote. With something like 1,100 books, I can’t always remember if I happen to have a particular book or not, and it might be useful to have a quick reference.

Let me back up a moment and admit that yes, I still have paper books. The books on my bookshelves are part of a collection of books I’ve been growing since high school. They consist of science fiction books, books on science, and history books, as well as some miscellaneous books thrown in for good measure. Many of the books are pretty rare in their respective areas, and many more are signed by authors I admire, or who have since become friends of mine. I know there are database systems out there for keeping track of books, and I’ve tried many of them but they are too time consuming for me. It occurred to me that, thanks to Evernote’s ability to identify text in images and allow you to search that text, an “image library” of my books might be just the trick.

My Books

My process for doing this was pretty simple, and highly dependent on Evernote to do much of the work for me. For those who want to reproduce my results, here’s what to do:

  1. Take a picture of each shelf on my bookshelf. (The higher resolution the picture, the better). 
  2. Create a note for each picture.
  3. Give a name to each note. I worked clockwise around my office. I numbered each bookcase and each shelf within the bookcase so that I could keep my note titles simple: “Bookcase 2, Shelf 4″, etc.
  4. Collect all of the notes together in a “Books” notebook in my “Home” notebook stack.
  5. Sync the notes with the Evernote server and allow Evernote to fill in the search data for the images.

The results are pretty cool. Here is a sample:

Bookshelf1

If I want to search for a particular book, I just type in my search into Evernote and see the results. For instance, say I want to search for the novel Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer. I type the word “Rollback” into the Search Bar and here are the results:

Book Search - Rollback

If I then open up the first note with the image of the bookshelf, I see the following:

Book Search Results

Note that in this image, the word “Rollback” on the spine of the book has been highlighted (I circled it). Compare that to the same image above where it is not highlighted. The highlighting indicates where in the image my search term was located. This is convenient for 2 reasons:

  1. I don’t have to maintain a separate list of the titles that show up in the image. Evernote can detect them.
  2. When I search, it highlights where on the shelf I can find the title.

Since the note title tells me which bookcase and which shelf number and the search result shows me where on the shelf the book is located, I can go to my shelf and find the book instantly.

What if the books on the shelf change?

I suppose if you add books to your shelves frequently or rearrange your books a lot, this could be a problem. I don’t and so for me it isn’t. Most of the books I get these days are e-books. About the only time I get paper books is when I am adding something to my collection–like when a friend sends me a signed book, or I acquire a rare book. I’ll add the book to the shelf, snap a photo, and update the note, removing the old photo and replacing it with the new one.

Other uses

I mentioned signed books and rare books. In addition to capturing the books on my shelves, I also capture some individual books. I’ll snap images of books that have been signed and/or books that are pretty rare. For instance, using Rollback as an example, Rob signed that book for me the first time I met him, not long after my first short story sale back in 2007. So I snapped a photo of the book and the signature page and have a note in Evernote with both images:

Rollback Signed

As far as rare books go, I do the same thing. I have 3 books, for instance, signed by Isaac Asimov. I never got to meet Asimov, but he is one of my favorite authors. One of these books is a pretty rare paperback of his novel The Caves of Steel:

Caves of Steel Signed

This has turned out to be a quick and simple way for me to maintain a pretty good inventory of my books, one that I can access anywhere through simple searches in Evernote, and one that can be updated by simply replacing one photo of a shelf with another. It works well for me.


If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

29 thoughts on “Going Paperless: My Virtual Bookcases in Evernote

  1. First, that top picture of your bookshelves and reading chair is fantastic. I’m trying not to be jealous.

    Second, your idea for cataloguing is brilliant. The text search in Evernote is amazing, and this is a great way to keep track of books. (Or CDs and DVDs, too.)

    Thanks for the tip!

    1. Travis, I initially did it with my iPhone camera. I have been going back and re-doing it with my Canon digital camera because the higher resolution seems to improve the text recognition in Evernote.

  2. THAT is a fantastic idea. Thank you for sharing w us, as I am not sure I would have figured that one out on my own.

    Love your (actual) books… really pretty. Although I have kindle, read online, etc etc, I still have tons of books (signed, first ed CATCHER IN THE RYE, etc etc), there is still something so beautiful about a book. I don’t think that will ever go away, be replaced.

    Enjoy your beautiful library.

  3. I love this idea. It never ceases to amaze me what Evernote can do! As a homeschooler, having a shelf by shelf list of my books would be AMAZING! Thank you for sharing!

    1. I so agree! As a former homeschooler/literature-based curricula writer and publisher – I have LOTS of books and am forever searching for a book or afraid to put one away because I will “lose” it. Once again, Evernote to the rescue.

  4. Brilliant use of Evernote! I started taking snapshots of important items in my storage unit (which is about 20 mins away from home) so I could recall items when needed. However, the benefits of Text in images was something I did not consider. I can see where I too could benefit by labeling items or otherwise including some text in the images (like a brand name or some other useful text).

    Great idea. Thanks so much for sharing!!

  5. Awesome! For some reason I never connected the image search with such a useful application. Now thinking of all sorts of ways to use this. Thanks for the article.

  6. Granted eBooks are already paperless. What do you suggest as a way to keep a handle on your eBooks? I have several hundred Kindle books and I’m overwhelmed. I keep meaning to sort them by type (Sci-fi, biography, YA etc.) and if I’ve read them or not. Thanks!

    1. Debbie, nearly all of my e-books are in my Kindle app, and I can search easily enough there to find what I am looking for. I am not so concerned about classifying and categorizing them, so this works well for me and saves a lot of time.

  7. Some of the spines in that photo can’t be read, because of glare. I assume Evernote can’t read those either?

    1. Brian, yes that’s right. I think I mentioned in another comment that I am in the process of retaking the photos using a much higher resolution camera and with better lighting so that there isn’t the blurring I got with my iPhone camera. On the shelves I’ve already done, that has greatly improved the OCR in Evernote.

  8. Awesome. I had no idea that evernote could fill in search data for images. Now I just need to be more disciplined when placing the books back on the shelf.

  9. I use this method for keeping track of my ammo inventory. And my wife is going to use it for keeping track of our pantry items.

  10. I have had limited success with this, I took a couple high ree photos (18 megapixel) – there is glare on a couple of titles, but even the other ones, the text isn’t being recognized, so I can only search 1 out of like 20 books

    Any additional tips?

    1. I’ve found that increasing the contrast has helped on some images. I don’t think my resolution is quite as high as yours (4000×3000) but I’ve had pretty good luck with my searches. Not perfect, but surprisingly good.

  11. Amazing HOW QUICKLY after trying this that I was able to test it out – Evernote wastes no time in indexing stuff. I absolutely LOVE this idea….just need to straighten a few bookshelves better for a nicer photo. One room of books down,3 to go….

  12. Good post. I have been using Evernote to store and tag my day to day notes and it makes finding things later a whole lot easier.

  13. I love this idea and tried it on a few of my shelves in my office. The only problem I ran into is when the titles of the books are going vertically down the spine. Like:
    D
    U
    F
    F
    Evernote doesn’t see that as a word I guess. Luckily, that style isn’t a popular as the horizontal titles. :)

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