A student should arrange his books in such a way that it is easy for him to refer to them if there is an issue that requires him to research some of his books. This means that he should maintain his books in a certain order. The way the books are to be organized depends on the preference of this student. So if he requires that all of his books on Tafseer be arranged together and all of his books on Hadeeth be arranged together, and he further divides the Tafseer section into its various sciences and the Hadeeth section into its various sciences, and the Fiqh books into their respective madh-hab’s and so on and so forth, then there is no harm in this. And if he decides to arrange his books in some other order that he feels is more beneficial, then there is also no problem with this. The objective is for the book to be in a place where if he looks for it, he will find it.
Books are divided into two types: Large books and small treatises. As for the large books, then these are the ones that we see in a library. This is since they are big – 10 volumes, 15 volumes, 13 volumes, 14 volumes, etc. This is clear. Rather, what deserves special attention are the small treatises, which are also important. It is possible that these smaller books may contain knowledge that cannot be found in the bigger books.
When he needs to refer to one of these small treatises, he looks for it but can’t find it. Why? It is because he has not put it in its proper place. One should take special care of these small treatises by putting them in a separate area. This means that they should not be put amidst the works of research and the larger books. So for example, a person may put a large book on his shelf and then next to it place a small book, in terms of its pages, and then next to that a small 40-50 page treatises and so on! The scholars have devoted some of their attention to this aspect, such that they have put forth what they call “compilations” consisting of a volume or more in which there can be found 10 or 12 treatises or more.
So if it’s possible, a student of knowledge should compile these small treatises into a collection, placing booklets of a similar subject into one volume. This means that he should put all the small treatises that deal with the manners of seeking knowledge in one specific volume, for example, or the small treatises that deal with the subject of Hadeeth terminology in a separate volume or the essays on the sciences of Tafseer and the sciences of Qur’aan in one specific collection and so on and so forth.
Likewise, he should place his Fiqh-related books and treatises separately. It is also appropriate to divide the Fiqh-related books and treatises into different sections, within themselves, according to what topics of Fiqh (jurisprudence) they fall under. So for example, one should place a treatise on crimes in its proper place amongst the chapters of Fiqh, thus organizing his books in this manner. He should begin with the treatises that deal with purification, followed by the treatises that deal with prayer.
Even those treatises on prayer should be subdivided into those that deal with the conditions of prayer first followed by the rulings on prayer which include the prostration of forgetfulness, for example. Each book should be put in its proper place. They should not be placed in the section of Zakaat, say, which comes after the prayer. The same should then be done with similar treatises, i.e. these small booklets that are hard to locate if one needs to refer to them. They should be organized according to their subjects of jurisprudence.
The same goes for the rest of the Islamic sciences whether they deal with history, Creed or their likes. One should put the books that cover Creed in general amongst the general books or treatises on Creed. Or he should place those subjects on Creed that he is researching into different sections on Creed so that it is easy for him to refer back to them.
So the first etiquette with regard to books is that one must organize his books in a good manner. Maintaining one’s library in order is an indication of a student of knowledge’s regard for his books.
However, if you visit and are granted access to a person’s library and find that his books are scattered around, in disorder and so on, this is due to ether one of two possibilities. The books are this way either because (1) the person researches his books a lot and needs to refer to them, thus causing his books to be scattered about – and even though this is something praiseworthy he should still put them back in their proper places afterward – or (2) he does not organize his books at all to begin with.
In his book on the judges of Egypt, which is called Raf’u-il-Isr ‘an Qudaat Misr, Al- Haafidh Ibn Hajr records a biography of one of the judges in Egypt and mentioned that when he was granted his judicial position, he would sit in a place where his books were on display. His books would be arranged in a nice and neat order. A student of knowledge entered his office once and saw his books and said: “What excellent order these books are in!” He was insinuating that the neat order and arrangement that his books were in indicated his lack of referencing them and using them. The judge understood this and kept it a secret to himself.
Later on, this man that had criticized the judge for having his books neatly arranged was put in charge of recording people’s marriages, i.e. the marriage contracts – something like an official that is licensed to wed couples. So the judge discovered that he had made an error in one of his marriage certificates and then rebuked him harshly. This shows that he had preserved that statement he made (a long time ago) in his memory.
The point is that this student used the fact that the judge’s books were neatly arranged as proof that he didn’t read or use them. But this is not always the case. If a student of knowledge wants to work on a subject or research an issue and he takes a number of books out, putting them in front of him and looking into this one and looking into that one, when he finishes, he should return them back to their proper place so that it will be easy for him to refer back to them at a later time.