Getting Your Physical Media Organised

You can get a world of entertainment streamed through your Internet connection, but most of us still have DVDs and CDs and console games to store. What are the best approaches to keeping that stuff organised?

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Even in this digital era, it's not uncommon to visit a friend's lounge room and find the whole place strewn with games and DVDs and the odd CD and perhaps a random USB stick or two. We like consuming media, but sorting it out sometimes seems like too much of an effort, so it just gets shoved on a shelf or balanced precariously on top of the television.

That doesn't mean you can't tame the chaos. Many of the principles in our recent list of clutter-taming strategies apply here, but there are some specific principles you can follow when it comes to entertainment media which I've outlined here.

I am a truly tragic physical media addict, so what I'm writing here draws largely on my own experience. I've tried to keep things as general as possible, but a lifetime of record collecting has left me with a reverence for actual physical objects (related to but distinct from my admiration for their content). As such, there's some avenues I'm just not interested in exploring (like taking my CDs out of their jewel cases in order to save space, or ripping everything onto a hard disk and then chucking the originals away).

Choose your own organising principle

When you only own 20 DVDs, it doesn't really matter how you stack them on the shelf. When you have several hundred, storing them according to some kind of organising system makes sense, unless you want to spend ages every time you try and hunt down a particular title.

In this context, the important principle is not what other people have done but what makes sense for you — and that won't necessarily be the same across all kinds of content. For instance, my CDs are sorted alphabetically by artist, and then chronologically within each artist, which means I can easily put my hands on anything I want. (My CD collection is in fact all ripped and available from a single hard drive, but that doesn't mean I don't want to sometimes lay my hands on the actual disc.) I follow a similar principle for my console games.

For DVDs, however, while I follow a generally alphabetical approach, I keep movies separated from TV series. I also have some series broken out into their own groups (Doctor Who being the most notable example here).

Other people use different approaches. If there's a handful of shows you regularly re-watch, then putting those all on the most accessible shelf might make sense. If you often select music by genre rather than artist, then grouping your CDs (or vinyl) that way makes sense.

If the visual appearance of your shelves is important to you, you can even sort via the colour of the spines, though that does make it hard to track down individual titles if you don't have a strong memory of their packaging. Don't feel constrained by what works for other people, but make sure you develop some kind of approach.

Don't buy dedicated storage

If you're in the mood to get organised, then items of furniture or storage cabinets designed for a specific kind of media can be tempting. However, I'd advise pretty strongly against them. CD storage units with built-in slots demonstrate the design flaws with this kind of approach pretty succintly:

  • If you do store items alphabetically (or by some other specific rule), then every time you buy a new one, you potentially have to remove each disc individually from the relevant slot. That's a major pain.
  • You'll invariably end up with odd-sized items (double discs or special editions) which won't fit in the system.
  • If the plastic dividers break, they're fiddly to replace or repair.

The other challenge with this type of equipment is that it often has a relatively short shelf life at retail, and you may find it hard to keep buying the same sort of storage as your collection expands. The rise of MP3 players means that dedicated CD storage solutions are much less common than they used to be, and it's virtually impossible to find storage drawers for VHS tapes or audio cassettes outside of second-hand shops.

For simple flexibility, it's hard to beat a standard bookshelf with variable height shelves, which can handle CDs, DVDs, old VHS tapes and vinyl records with equal aplomb. If you're concerned about security, it's relatively easy to add a door and a locking mechanism.

Captain Obvious moment: Put things away

No matter what scheme you adopt, it's pretty pointless if you don't occasionally get around to putting everything away. If you've adopted a scheme that makes sense to you, this shouldn't be too difficult. Spending a few seconds putting each disc away after you watch it not only ensures you can find it again in a hurry, it also minimises the risk of it getting scratched while it lies unloved in your lounge room.

Keep lists of what you have

If it's too much effort to keep stuff sorted at your place, it may well seem ridiculous to suggest cataloguing what you already have. But there's a host of potential benefits:

  • If you get burgled or get caught in a natural disaster, you'll have an easy list for replacements (and less grounds for your insurance company to argue against your claim list).
  • You won't make the mistake of buying something you already have during a sale frenzy. (That's the main reason I started keeping a list.)
  • Making the effort to go through your collection may help you identify titles you don't need to hang onto any longer.

Our Hive Five lists of home inventory tools and movie cataloging softwarewill give you some useful resources for the task, but it needn't be overcomplicated. I keep my listings in the notepad on my BlackBerry, which means they're always with me, even if I don't have signal for some reason.

What tricks do you use to keep your physical media collection under control? Share your strategies in the comments.

Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


    I have organised my movies by rating and then a rough alphabetical. With kids in the house it is better to have them only access G and PG rather than M or greater.

    I started organising my dvds alphabetically, which hit a snag once the shelf became full, now its just those original dvds in alphabetical the rest sitting ontop, which now too is running into a snag.

    Any movies in "collectors tins" are the bane of any organised system

    I'm starting to think backing them up to itunes and just using external storage is the real way to go now.

    I've got a reasonably large (300+) and rapidly growing DVD collection that is currently sorted alphabetically for the movies and the TV series are sorted in whatever way I can to make sure that each disc for a series is on the same shelf as the other discs (so that for example, Futurama seasons 1-3 aren't on one shelf then 4 and the movies are on the next).

    A lot of the time DVDs are scattered across the floor, coffee table, couch and on top any surface that I can be bothered resting them on. But keeping to this system means that it takes barely any time at all to put everything back together when I eventually get around to cleaning up.

    At the moment though, the only cataloguing I've done is list the movies in a Google Docs spreadsheet. I've tried using Delicious Library but the lack of barcode reading for AU titles was a big hindrance, at least it was enough to stop me from upgrading from the trial version. Still, aside from trying to cobble something together in Evernote, it does seem like Delicious Library is my only other viable option right now.

    When it comes to home inventory tools, I can whole-heartedy recommend Dean, Dave and the rewst of the iTrackmine team are truly dedicated people! For example, one of the problems with some other popular choices is that they don't support AU books, cds, dvds, etc. iTrackmine, however, go out of their way to accomodate user requests to add item, update info, etc and respond very quickly via their contact form or the reporting button for each item on their datatbase. I can tell you that I have been quite happy to place a fair chunk of my collection in storage now that I know exactly what is in it and where exactly it is.

    Best thing I did was discard the case, keep the cover, then have both the disc & cover in a zip up book style case. After that just sort by genre eg, doco's, action, thriller etc.

    We actually had to write a program for a subject that had a web based interface that would be used to organise the mass amount of physical data our lecturer had. It would have a database full of physical data types, and for each entry exactly what was on that specific instance. For example, on the bookshelf in the back room on spindle 3 disc 7 you could find a specific song. Was a great thing, ended up doing a similair setup for my spindles of discs.

    Fantastic ideas Angus. My preferred option is to insert cds/dvds into clear plastic sleeves which can hold movie/title cover and disc. These can then be stored neatly in binders and displayed on shelves or hidden away. I use "Well Sorted Disc Storage Solutions" products to organise my discs and save space as they have a large range of coloured and cartoon character binders & wallets. All reasonably priced. Regards, Aleisha

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