I’ve Got Books…Now What? How to Organize Your Classroom Library

IMG_1344This is the chaos that you want to avoid! 

You’ve scoured thrift shops, browsed used bookstores, and asked family and friends for donations. You’re well on your way to having an amazing classroom library for your students to enjoy! But all the books in the world are useless if your library is a disorderly mess. In today’s post, I’ll be sharing some of the ways that I keep my classroom library organized and some library lessons I’ve learned from my first three years of teaching.

FYI: I am a departmentalized teacher, which means that I teach reading and writing to two different groups of students. These organization tips would definitely work for a self-contained teacher; you just might need to tweak the systems a little bit! I also teach fifth grade, so if you teach much younger students, your students will likely have different organizational needs.

Select a Shelving System

IMG_3766I like using bins for my smaller collections of books because they are easy to move if I end up needing more space on a particular shelf

The first library must-have is a system for shelving your books. If students don’t know how to find books they’re interested in, they’re less likely to read the books you worked so hard to find! It’s your job to figure out how to best organize your books in a way that is easy to use and easy to maintain.

Some teachers like to shelve their books like they do at a public library (spines facing out) and use colored tape to denote different genres or topics. Other teachers use book bins and sort the books by reading level. Personally, I use a hybrid system. I use book bins for books in a series and for picture books, and the rest of my books were shelved according to genre or topic. I plan on using the same system this year because I was able to observe how seeing all of the books (versus just the books at the front of a bin) impacted my students and what books they were selecting. I noticed a wider variety of books being read by my students after I switched to the spines-out system.

In my experience, sorting books by genre or topic made it easier for students to identify books they want to read. (Interested in sports? Check out the sports shelf!) It also strengthened their knowledge of genres and deepened their understanding of what genres they enjoy reading. We do a 40 book challenge in our classroom that requires students to read a diverse mixture of genres, and labeling shelves as “science fiction” or “historical fiction” empowered students to choose a book they’re interested in from a new genre. Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, this system is more reflective of authentic reading. When a student goes to a bookstore or public library, there is no “S” or “U” or “green” or “red” section. In the real world, students need to know how to find books based on topic or author. Organizing my classroom library in this way will make it easier for my students to make the transition to reading outside of our classroom.

One thing I would encourage you to avoid is sorting books by level. Students should not feel limited to books that are on their level, but instead should feel free to read books that are personally interesting to them! After all, a student’s background knowledge of a book’s topic can sometimes help them access texts that would normally be too “difficult” for them. Removing the pressure of reading levels from your classroom library will help students feel more positively about reading and, in turn, make them want to read more. If you want to read more about the debate of leveling classroom library books, I recommend checking out this post.

Organize the Books (easier said than done!)

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This is where things can get a little crazy. I recommend pulling ALL of your books out and making stacks on desks or the floor, based on topic, genre, or series. This way, you can begin to see how much space you will need for each part of your library.

Once you’ve got the books sorted, you will need to label your shelves and/or bins. I use the adhesive labels found in the Target Dollar Spot and made my own labels that go inside. (If you’re interested in using my labels, I’ve uploaded both pre-made and editable versions to my TPT store). I stick the labels directly on the shelves or bins and they last me all year!

Label the Books

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Labeled shelves and bins are meaningless if your students don’t know which books belong on which shelves! A system of labeling your books is key to helping your library stay organized and to keeping track of your books so that they don’t wander off throughout the school year.

I keep my labeling system very simple and easy to maintain. I buy a bunch of Avery envelope labels and use Microsoft word to create two types of labels. The first type goes on the front and says “Please return to Mrs. Barnes.” This helps kids remember which books belong to our classroom library, which books are theirs, and which books belong to our (very small, very sad) school library.

The second type of label goes on the back. I type up a bunch of different genres/topics, like sports, science fiction, realistic fiction, animals, etc. I size these so that I can cut each strip of labels in half and get two mini-labels out of each larger sticky label (you can see these smaller labels in the picture above). I place these genre/topic labels on the back of each book. During the first week of school, when I explain our library to my students, I tell them how to use the topic/genre labels to re-shelve books. I also print up a bunch of extras of each type of label so that as I inevitably pick up books throughout the school year, it’s easy for me to add the new titles to our library.

Figure out a Check Out/Check In System

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With two classes and three subjects to juggle, it’s really important that my students know how to check out and check in books and can do so without any assistance from me. Like my labeling system, I keep my check out/check in process very low-maintenance. I know some teachers use a digital check out system using Google Forms, but I don’t have extra technology to spare and my students can’t use their own electronics during the school day, so my check out system is old school–pencil and paper, baby!

I have a different binder for each homeroom that I teach, and each student has their own sheet in their homeroom’s binder. My check-out sheets ask for the date a book was checked out, the book title, and the date a book was checked in. I also have a column for me to initial once a student returns a book. This isn’t a perfect system, but it did a pretty good job of helping me see which students hadn’t returned books and was very easy to keep up with throughout the school year. If you want to use my system, you can grab it here for free.

Create a Command Center

IMG_1632The bookshelf in black serves as our library command center. It was just $10 at Goodwill and it’s lasted me three years and counting! 

Even the best check-out system is useless if students don’t know where to access it. To keep your library running, I recommend setting up a “command center” that will allow your students to take ownership of the space and of their reading lives.

In our library, our command center is a small bookshelf with a drawer. I keep all of the check-out binders in the drawer, so they don’t get lost and students always know where to find them. Underneath, I have a “returns” bin. When students are done with a book, they drop it in this return bin after checking it back in. I have a student librarian in each of my classes who is responsible for reshelving books. Underneath the returns bin is the “book hospital.” Students know to put books that are torn, have missing pages, or otherwise damaged in this bin. I periodically go through this bin and evaluate which books are salvageable and which books aren’t. Finally, on the very top of the shelf, I keep a bucket with pens and bookmarks (aka random scraps of paper) for kids to use as needed.

Set up Spaces to Share Book Recs

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Ever since my first year of teaching, I have had a couple of spots for kids to share and gather book recommendations. ​These spaces offer a way for students to get ideas about what to read if they’re feeling stuck or in a reading rut.

On the left is my teacher recommendation board, complete with an awkward picture of me in fifth grade, the same grade that I teach. I use this space to make recommendations of books in our classroom library and offer a little synopsis of what each book is about. I know that this board is working when students ask me where they can find titles that I’ve recommended! On the right is our student recommendation board. At any time, students can grab a post-it and make a recommendation to their peers.

Display Books of Interest

screen-shot-2018-07-15-at-11-51-21-am.pngWhen our class started reading Making Bombs for Hitler as our read-aloud, I displayed books that were related to the Holocaust or World War II. 

One new feature that I incorporated into our library this year was book displays. Book displays are a really easy and cheap way to increase your students’ exposure to different books! All you need are some book display stands. I ordered these from Amazon, but I’ve also seen teachers find similar stands at Wal-Mart or the Dollar Tree. Scatter these stands throughout your library and fill them with books you want your kids to see. Throughout the school year, I used the stands to display:

  • hot new releases (Rebound, anyone?)
  • great books that had fallen to the back of the shelves
  • books that had something in common with our class novel

In addition, my students knew that if a book stand was empty, they could fill it up with a book of their choosing. This meant that it doubled as a way for kids to make book recommendations to their peers and take ownership over our library, which is always a win in my book!

I hope you found some of these tips helpful as you begin or continue organizing your own classroom library. Do you have any tried and true library organization tips? Let me know below!

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