Bookcase vs. Bookshelf: What's the Difference?

Bookcase or bookshelf?
Bookcase or bookshelf? / onurdongel/iStock via Getty Images

For some people, books are a kind of decorative accent, a way to broadcast your love of literacy in your home even though you might find some of the titles close to unreadable. For true bibliophiles, having shelves of books is a necessity. Either way, books have to go somewhere. If they’re not stacked vertically, hoarder-style, they’re placed on a bookcase or bookshelf—probably one you bought flat-packed from IKEA.

But what’s the difference between the two?

As Chairish reports, the answer is in the words themselves. A bookcase is a freestanding, self-supporting piece of furniture that encases books (or whatever you’d like to shelve) inside. It has structure. If it were placed anywhere, from a room to a parking lot, it would be readily identifiable as a bookcase.

A bookshelf, on the other hand, is just that—a shelf. It has no means of support. Bookshelves are normally placed on wall brackets or otherwise bolted to a secure wall where they can “float.” If you took a bookshelf off the wall and placed it elsewhere, it would look like a piece of lumber.

It’s a pretty simple distinction. If a piece of furniture can sit on the floor, it’s a bookcase. If it needs to be held up or installed, it’s a bookshelf.

If you’re shopping, some retailers may describe a bookcase as a “shelving unit.” It’s pretty clinical, but it makes sense: People store photos, collectibles, and other personal items on bookcases. And while they’re normally closed on three sides, some have an open design that make them resemble a bookshelf.

Which one is “better” depends largely on your space and style preferences. If you opt for a bookcase, you’ll be taking up a large footprint on the floor. This might be better for renters who aren’t comfortable drilling holes in the wall. (If you have children or pets, however, it’s always a good idea to install one support strap to prevent it from tipping over.) Opt for a bookshelf and you’ll have more design freedom, with shelves able to be placed above other furniture. You’ll probably need some bookends to keep your titles from tipping over. But ultimately, how you choose to display that unread copy of Infinite Jest is entirely up to you.

[h/t Chairish]