Overhauling My Classroom Library

I have read all of the research and theories about children's literature and classroom library organization that I can get my hands on.  One theory that I came across, years ago, likened books in a classroom library to products in a grocery store or books in a bookstore.  It talked about how companies paid more to have their products facing forward at eye level in a grocery store, or their books facing outward on the end of the aisle in a bookstore.  They covet these positions because buyers are more likely to pick up the product when they can see the cover of it.  

While I couldn't stand the idea of comparing my students to buyers and our books to products, the theory of books being more appealing when you can see the cover makes sense.  I really took it to heart and set out to begin organizing my books into categories by genre, author, and series.  I bought plastic book baskets for all of my books and labels for each basket.  I numbered each basket with a color-coded sticker, and labeled every book with corresponding stickers.  

The first year that I had my books organized this way, it seemed to go very well.  The library looked nice and the stickered system was organized to a T.  The second year, however, I started to find my students making comments about not being able to find any good books.  I was taken aback and pointed out that we had thousands of books in our classroom.  How could they say that?  I didn't immediately understand where the breakdown was.  

After that school year, I continued my library research and I had an epiphany.  Yes I wanted my library books to be easy to find and appealing to my students, but I also wanted it to have a homey, welcoming feel.  I started thinking about the environments where I feel most comfortable and I immediately thought of a living room or a library.  The problem is that I have never walked into someone's living room or a library and seen their books in book baskets.  Why is that?  Because if they were in book baskets, you wouldn't be able to see all of the books!  I was having the same problem in my classroom. I realized that a lot of my books were never being seen or read. I also couldn't immediately tell if books were out of place because they were shoved into the wrong basket, so my students truly couldn't find books when they were looking for them. All you could really see was the top half of the first book in the basket.  I always thought that showing just the book spines wouldn't be enough to catch a student's eye, but I realized that I was wrong.  Book spines are made to be visually appealing, and the look of a bookshelf full of books always catches my eye, so I bet it would catch my students' eyes as well!

I still have my picture books in baskets because they work well for larger books, but I got rid of all of the baskets for chapter books.  I started putting them onto the shelves with the spine out and immediately felt better.  Suddenly my classroom library felt more like a living room and made me want to sit down and start looking through the books.  I knew it was the right decision.  So I looked around for ways to organize my books and found these simple but fantastic labels from Molly at Lessons with Laughter.   

Printed on Avery labels and applied to book spines

While I know that it might sound cliche, I decided to organize my chapter books alphabetically because it allowed me to keep popular authors and series books together.  It also taught my students how to search for books alphabetically like they would at a school or public library.  This system let my students be in charge of adding new books to our library because they could easily apply a sticker to the spine of each new book.  With this, they felt even more involved and attached to our library and really felt that it belongs to THEM.  That's what we want, isn't it?

I have added a variety of book display easels throughout my classroom in order to continue the idea of showing my students the covers of our books, without every book needing to be facing outward.

Now my books are organized by the author's last name.  I don't require that they be perfectly alphabetical, but the C books do need to be with the other C books, and so on.  I have 2 students in charge of walking around each day and checking that all of the books are in their correct place, which is very simple to see because an out-of-place colored sticker really stands out.  I also have 3-4 students that are our "inventory librarians" because they are responsible for adding new books to our library. (I only have this many librarians because the students BEG to be librarians and because I add SO MANY books!)

After implementing this new system, and ditching my library baskets, I have seen an incredible difference in my students' pride in our classroom library.  Former students are now even more likely to come check out books from my library because they are so enticing and easy to find.  I have been more excited to add new books to our library, and my students have discovered more authors and genres than any previous year.

When you are thinking about the organization of your library, think about the type of environment that YOU would like to spend time in.  What makes you want to pull up a chair and spend time somewhere?  I know that book baskets work for many classrooms, and I am certainly not saying that they are to be abandoned entirely.  However, it is important to reevaluate our choices in our classroom on a regular basis, and sometimes that means making a complete overhaul.  If your students are not as connected to the library as you hoped they would be, or there are books on your shelves that are being overlooked and rarely touched, you might consider shaking things up and finding a whole new way of presenting the books to your students.  Make your library a welcoming, comfortable place, and your students will feel right at home.

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