Before answering this question, I want to give a little background on it. This summer, like many people on the west coast, a good friend’s house was burned in a wild fire. Only a few of her family’s possessions were salvageable. They were devastated but happy to be alive.

On Facebook, my friend began posting her journey through this travesty- and reflecting on lessons learned too late. Each week, I poured through her posts, looking to prevent mistakes of my own. About three weeks into her posts, she wrote, “INVENTORY YOUR HOUSE! I MEAN IT – DO IT TODAY.” That was all she wrote.

A week later, she began talking about the agony of trying to recreate a list of everything they owned. She was overwhelmed and tired. The insurance company wanted a detailed list of possessions, but they didn’t have one. The big stuff – furniture, TVs, computers, etc. – weren’t hard to remember. But the small meaningful things such as – toys, clothes, knick-knacks, shoes, holiday decor, dishes, pots & pans, DVDs, and books were lost in her memory. The insurance claim was delayed. She had the daunting task of remembering everything in in the house, including the possessions of her spouse and four children.

Her list of small things to remember had me at books. My home library – slowly collected over the years – wasn’t written down. If my shelves were suddenly empty, I’d struggle to remember every book. I decided to take her advice and begin my home inventory. I had more books than anything else, so that is where I started. I felt the weight of the task and wanted to be sure it was necessary before preceeding, so I called my insurance agent.

We decided it would be worth the time and effort, mostly because my collection is extensive. He informed me it may be too large to be covered under a standard policy. The first step was to do the inventory, and then he’d go over it with me determine whether it exceeded our policy’s “contents limits.” (Check your policy’s declarations page to see what your limit is.) Note: I was directed to do this with all the contents of my home, not just books.

Insurance policies set a specific amount to replace all the goods in your home. Homeowner’s insurance policies cover costs more generally. They will not give you the replacement value of your rare or valuable books in the event of a loss. If you have rare and collectible books, it is crucial to have their value assessed and secure special insurance. The same is true if your collection is extensive. It is imperative for renters and homeowners to know what is and isn’t covered in our insurance policies. Special insurance is recommended for anything you have that is out of the ordinary or that you have in large amounts (like jewelry, collector’s items, etc.).

No one likes to think about the worst-case scenarios, but it is critical to be prepared. Having a well-laid out plan with all the necessary documents helps calm anxiety and fear in times of trouble. There are so many reasons to inventory your belongings, such as – planning your estate, tracking loaned items, moving list, theft, flood damage, and insurance valuation. If it stresses you to think about the what-ifs in life, think about it positively – how it will prepare you in potential times of stress.

One easy way to inventory your books is by purchasing an app that allows you to scan your books. If you do an app search for “book inventory,” there are many out there with different options. Know the features you would like and research which apps are best. I have many books from the pre-ISBN era, so finding one with a manual lookup was vital. Most of these apps come with a cost if you have more than 25 books. The investment is worth it. They save time by being able to scan books as opposed to typing the titles into a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet will do the trick, but it is time-consuming. If you go with a spreadsheet, make sure it’s saved in multiple places (in an email or to a cloud service), so if disaster strikes your spreadsheet isn’t lost as well.

I have thousands of books. Who knew? I certainly didn’t realize that until I started scanning them. I’ve done a shelf a week which isn’t very ambitious, but slow and steady doesn’t burn oneself out. The idea is I’m making progress, and some information is better than none.

I’ve created a system to speed up the process. First, I take a picture of each shelf – just in case I forget which ones I have done and as a back up to prove I have the books. Then, I take time to sort each shelf’s books into three piles (great time to dust): books with a barcode, books with an ISBN, and books that will need manual lookup. I always do the barcodes first, then ISBNs, and finally the manual lookups. Depending on how many of each type, I can complete a 44-inch bookshelf in 30 minutes. If they are all new books with barcodes, I can scan them in less than 10 minutes.

I look forward to finishing my inventory. I don’t look forward to the news that I’ll need a special collection policy. I’d much rather face that now than find out after it is too late. I plan to pass my collection onto my children, and I want to do everything I can to preserve my books and let the stories live on. It isn’t always necessary to increase your insurance policy: that’s a personal choice and depends on your collection/policy. Preparing the inventory is a tool that will help you decide.

I discovered many unexpected benefits from doing my book inventory, as follows:

  • Identified duplicate books. My app tells me if I’ve already added a title. Now I can decide to sell them to, share with family/friends, or donate them.
  • Track loaned or missing books. I have adult children who like to raid my shelves. The app has a place to indicate it was loaned out. I saw one app that allowed you to add the borrower’s email and set a date to send them a friendly reminder.
  • Save Money. Use your app to look up a book title before purchasing it. You might already own it. 
  • Forgotten treasures. Many books have been sitting waiting to be rediscovered. My TBR list grew immensely.
  • Plan my estate. My books are coveted by my children. They often discuss which ones they want to inherit. (I’m not that old, but they are serious book lovers.) You can add estate notes to your inventory list.
  • Identify incomplete collections. Whether these were never purchased or borrowed doesn’t matter, I have missing books. Can’t wait to find them on!
  • Peace of mind knowing if the worst should happen, I’ve done the work to begin rebuilding.
  • Easily update the flow of books in and out of my house. Delete books that were donated or given away.
  • Add books as they come—no excuse to not be current.
  • Lists books I have read. Most apps allow me to add whether I have read the book or not. (Some even have a space for notes.)
  • Make recommendations and share my list with others.

No matter where you live or how old you are, you can begin to take inventory of your book collection and other possessions. Technology has made it easy to prepare a home audit. Take some time to find the app that works for you, but do it soon. Begin today. If you can crank out a whole audit on the weekend – great. But if the idea is overwhelming, take baby steps. Begin with the collections that matter most to you or you might forget about in an emergency. Keep backup copies of your inventory in a safe, somewhere off-premises locations or on the cloud.

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