The Sparrow's Perch
Life’s Library’s Shelves — Behind The Scenes Pt. 1

Life’s Library’s Shelves — Behind The Scenes Pt. 1

So in addition to being a stressed college student and an avid reader, I also work as a community manager for Life’s Library, an online book club by John Green and Rosianna Halse Rojas. I know, it’s like the coolest job in the world. It really is. Getting here was a wild and winding story that we don’t really have time for today, but here are the two things you need to know from that saga:

  1. I’m a long-time fan of the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, and in recent years, have become a somewhat active member of one of John’s side projects.
  2. John did not expect 6000 people to sign up for the book club from his announcement video. 6000! He came to a couple of us for help with setting up the book club and Discord server, where the discussions were to be hosted. This is where I got involved with the process.

What follows in this post are the behind-the-scenes of how we came up with the idea to sort everyone into various bookshelves, as well as how we arrived at the final designs of each one. The shelves are currently being sold as merchandise on DFTBA Records, so I mean. We’re doing okay, I think.

And before we go forward, a disclaimer: while I personally focused on creating the shelf designs, there was a lot more invisible work that went into setting up Life’s Library. How do we moderate a server of 6000 people? How would we create threads that people felt like they could contribute to regardless of their capacity as a reader and where they were in the book? 

Managing a book club is so much more work than I expected, and even today, months after launch, we’re still overcoming obstacles and learning new things. A huge shoutout to librarians, booksellers and organizers who do these things on a daily basis, you guys are the true heroes of the literary world.

And a personal shoutout to Zoey, who put up with me incessantly as I asked (and continue to ask) dumb questions about the design process and Adobe Illustrator. Without you my design career literally would not exist. Love you boo.

How do we… do this?

The official logo of the book club, art by Rosianna Halse Rojas.

Without question, our main hurdle with Life’s Library was the sheer amount of people who had signed up to be a part of the club.

We were supposed to host book discussion across more than six thousand subscribers (and these were just the people who were paying!) but still somehow manage to provide a productive space online with as little barriers to participation as possible. How do we even begin to make sure that everyone feels like their voice is heard in a crowd of 6000? Here, John took inspiration from Pokemon Go (yes) and suggested that we break up the members into smaller groups:

“Maybe there is some very simple system built into the Life’s Library […] site where you go there, and you are shown, like, five colored boxes or something […] and you are told to pick a colored box […] and then you are taken to your color’s Discord, which becomes your Discord, except for when we all gather together once per book to talk with the author and maybe in some way with each other.”

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The verrry first inklings of the concept of shelves you can choose. Which I made in Paint! Designing is srs bsnss, y’all.

This was a really great way to do it, but we were still left with the question of what the groups were going to be called. We went through a lot of ideas: plants, precious rocks, actual libraries, but nothing seemed to fit with the idea of a book club. Plants and rocks were easy, but also felt too arbitrary. And I personally felt so weird about just using stock images of libraries in a project with this scale. We also had to make sure that it wasn’t something that people would already have favorites of, like types of herbs and spices.

We were like, this close to just calling them Reading Room 1, 2, and 3 and calling it a day.

Another thing you should probably know about me is that I’m a little bit obsessed with sorting systems, both in fiction and real life. The Hogwarts houses. Personality tests like the MBTI and the Enneagram. This whole dilemma, in essence, was coming up with a sorting system for a project that I was already really excited for, so to say that I was invested was a little of an understatement.

So here I was: nerd extraordinaire, mulling over how to sort thousands of enthusiastic bookworms into categories that:

  • were bookish-themed
  • somehow reflected the chooser’s personalities in a tiny way
  • were obscure enough that people wouldn’t already have a favorite
  • weren’t wholly western/American-centric
  • were easy for me to design around

And then I had it. The golden idea. What if we made the categories bookshelves?

I started, very excitedly, pitching this to a friend (hi Jonathan). The sorting site would have several images of bookshelves, each of them designed differently: one covered by ferns, one with vines on the wall, sunflower in a vase, hibiscus ornaments. The groups would be named for an arbitrary item in the shelf (at this point in the process I was going with a plant in each shelf, but we eventually changed this to just random items), so they would be completely random, but the process of selecting a group would still be fundamentally tied to the theming of a book club.

EDIT: Note from Jonathan: I still maintain that I have been erased out of the bookshelf idea history.

I was a little nervous to bring this idea to the team because I was terrified of criticism, but my worries really were in vain—everyone loved it and was so supportive. With the idea greenlit by the Discord team, I started making some design mockups for the shelves.

The first few shelves!

Aloe! Tan rocks, rocks, neutral colored books, several succulents.

This was the very first shelf I made. I didn’t even really have a design concept yet, I just knew I wanted a TON of succulents on it. All of the shelves are my ideal shelves in some tiny way, to be honest. A huge, bookish kaleidoscope of the things I love.

Chamomile: My “Tumblr aesthetic” shelf: fairy lights, polaroids, a teapot.

Hi, my name is Skye and I love fairy lights and polaroids. I don’t drink a lot of tea, but I love the idea of chamomile tea being really calming and soothing. Jonathan said this was such an old person aesthetic but I don’t mind at all! I want to live in a shelf that contains so many memories like this.

Hibiscus: Explorer shelf! Magnifying glass, elephant pot, triangular bookcase and vines.

The hibiscus is the national flower of Malaysia, which is where I’ve lived my entire life. I’ve been drawing these lil’ things ever since I could hold a pencil in school. I love the little diamond flourishes on the book spines and how they add to the overall aesthetic, and I love that the Hibiscus shelf on the Discord has named the little elephant pot Biscuit! I think one of the most rewarding things about this entire process has genuinely been everyone’s overflowing enthusiasm about the shelves they picked. It’s so rewarding as a designer.

Everything was going smoothly so far, but we still had to run the bookshelf idea through John and his team at DFTBA, where the subscriptions would be handled. To be really honest, I had invested so much into the shelves already that I would be at least a little bit devastated if they said no. So I crossed my fingers.

News came on Friday morning, two days later, a little update email from the DFTBA team that contained this line:

“We really love the bookshelf idea and think you should move forward with it. We also love the concept art.”

I’m going to be completely honest guys, I teared up a little reading this one tiny tiny line. God, it felt so validating. I remember just staring at the screen for a good few minutes, dumbstruck by how lucky I got.

From here on out, operation bookshelf sorting was a go! I owe the bookshelf design concepts after Aloe, Chamomile & Hibiscus entirely to the rest of the team. Everyone worked so hard, and I’ll try to credit to the best of my ability as we go along.

Going all-in

Cygnus: For the astronomers and stargazers. A white swan feather, navy blue books, an art print of the swan constellation.

Sketch of the shelf by Haley!

In our early drafting process, we had two space-themed shelves. The other one was going to be called Nebula, but we ended up combining the two because we had too many concepts and the two were similar. Jonathan (a different one this time, this one’s American) pushed hard for a shelf called Enceladus (nerd), and this was the compromise.

Cygnus, named for the constellation of a swan, was what we came up with in the end. It also quickly went on to become the most popular group among the mods during group selection, and the first group to hit the member cap. Everyone just really loves space, man. The text of the book is lzw gdv skljgfgewj… if anyone wants to figure out what that means (eye emoji).

Forest: ​​​​Another explorer shelf, with more of a desert ambiance. Honey shelf held up by rope, compass, a marimo moss ball, a map made from aged parchment.

Forest’s sketch by Will!

The Forest Room on the Discord has made an emoji out of the moss ball called Mo! I love him and would give my LIFE for him. My favorite thing about this shelf would probably be the wooden backing as well as the ropes holding it up—I love how organic the shelf feels with the design elements. The shimmery texture on the map for this one definitely makes it one of the larger files, though, even our web designer (hi Allison) said that her computer did a pause while trying to sort through the file. I was really unsure with how this one turned out in relation to the fantastic sketch provided by Will, so I’m very glad that people still connect to it!

Gold: The athletics shelf. An elaborate book crate decorated with sportsball ornaments, hanging cleats, and a gold trophy.

Gold’s sketch by Will <3

A confessional: out of all the shelves, Gold’s concept was the one I connected to the least. I’m just way less of a sports person than I was into everything else. This also applied to the nerd population at large, apparently: we eventually had to close Gold down as a discussion group after launch because it wasn’t getting enough members. 🙁

Still, I’m very fond of how this design turned out in spite of it all. I had a really good sketch to work from! RIP Gold. At least it still lives on in the official postcard collection.

Ivy: Witchy bookshelf! Ivy vines, wands, crescent moons and cats.

Okay. So five things about this shelf:

  1. One of the mods in our team has an Actual black cat named Ivy, which is where the inspiration came from.
  2. The flowers are (supposed to be) jasmine.
  3. The ivy vines were so hard to make. A bulk of the time I spent making this shelf was spent on the vines alone. Turns out it’s really difficult to make twirly things look natural.
  4. The cat, which the discussion group has since named Luna, design was inspired by another famous Luna in fiction.
  5. This really shouldn’t be a surprise considering how much of a Potterhead I am and how my favorite genre is fantasy, but Ivy is like, hands down, one of my favorite shelves. Don’t tell the others.
Onyx:​​​​​​​ Chess shelf: all black and white, lots of straight lines, very neat and geometric

I love Onyx so much because it took the least amount of time to make out of all fifteen of the shelves, and I didn’t even have a sketch to work off! Designing this took only around 30 minutes, which is really all I could’ve asked for in a shelf. I love the straight lines for this, and how the plant adds such a nice pop of color to an otherwise very monochrome shelf. It was also the first shelf to feature books that were lying down instead of propped up vertically.

James, another mod in our team, had the idea to have the books in one of the shelves organized from darkest to lightest to form a gradient, and I’m very happy with how that concept worked out in Onyx!

Is this a cliffhanger? Maybe.

This post is already 2000 words long, so I’m going to cut it into two parts! Next time, I talk about the rest of the shelves, and my takeaways from the most ambitious design project I have embarked on to-date. It’s been such a wild ride, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has been a part of this looong journey so far! If you’d like to join the Life’s Library, you can check out the official website and John’s announcement video for more information.

Thank you for reading, and see you around the Perch!