How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider

This is not a comprehensive “how to” list because it has been my experience that when people begin with, “I need to work on my classroom library . . . ” they have, at the most, a twenty minute attention span before they can’t absorb any more. There is a lot to consider and time to process is necessary.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

*I am often asked to share a photo of my classroom library. The thing is . . . my classroom is a library. Where is the library within the classroom? Where is the classroom within the library? Who knows? Throughout this post, I will share various photos from my classroom library. Will I capture every part? Probably not.

Thinking classroom libraries? Have 20 minutes? 20 points to consider

#1 Read the books in your classroom library for pleasure, just like you want your students to read them. Appreciate the illustrations. Giggle. Reread amazing lines. Fall in love with the stories. Don’t just read with lessons and themes in mind.

#2 If you haven’t read the books or you don’t know about the books (familiar with the author, series, have read detailed reviews, etc.) you won’t be able to talk about the books. Unless your students are familiar with particular titles already, they won’t read them. They need your blessing, your expertise and eventually, your guidance in cultivating their own ability to be each other’s reading community.

#3 Book talk, book talk, book talk. And then book talk some more. Read an excerpt. Rave. Show a book trailer. Have students or guests share what they love.

#4 Organize your library like you love it (and don’t you?). All of those special books need special places to be.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#5 Weed your collection. If it’s old and falling apart, it needs to go. If it is never read and you wouldn’t want to read it, pass it on. If it is well loved, falling apart and still circulating, try and replace it.

#6 Reflect your readers. Their interaction and use of the books is what makes it a functioning library. It can be beautiful. It can be organized. If nobody is reading the books, none of that matters. This year, I will have a younger group so I spent some time moving some titles more suited to intermediate readers into temporary storage bins. If I notice that my new readers are crazy for a particular genre, author or series, I will try and add more of those titles into our collection. The library is not fixed, it’s fluid.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#7 Give a library orientation. Make sure your students know how to find the books they are looking for. They won’t know by osmosis. Bring out the bins, do mini tours, give them time to explore and then lots of time to read what they find.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#8 Systems matter. The labels, the bins, how to put books back, how to borrow books (if they go home) how long you can have one particular book, etc. All of it matters so everyone has access and the library runs smoothly. A few of my “tricks”: stickers on the back that correspond to stickers on the bins, lots of review with how to use the system and a “chapter book return” and “picture book return” bin in case the students don’t remember where to put the books. There is no one way to do it. Figure out what works for you and your readers.

#9 Match bins (if you use bins) for a visually less busy look. Some people have all uniform size and colour for bins. Others have one kind for picture books and another for novels. I ended up with numerous bins – some with multiple sections that are quite expensive so I don’t want to toss them all out and start new. In my library, colour is connected to genre. Red is fiction (picture books). Yellow is for buddy reading and beginning titles. Blue is for series. Green is for comics and graphics. Clear is nonfiction. There is no reason for this other than it worked for the books and the bins I had.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#10 The importance of outward display can never, ever, be over stated. The covers can be seen? Those books will be read more often. Guaranteed. If possible, have multiple book shelves where you can display the covers. Ledges, mounted rain gutters, tops of white boards – all of these things work too!

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#11 Keep track of what books in a series you have. When you are in the bookstore and there is a sale, you will not remember if it is Baby Mouse #14 or #15 that you still need. You really won’t. I have a little notebook where I keep lists of titles I have and titles I need and throw that notebook in my bag whenever I go book shopping.

#12 Sometimes when a reader finds a series, it is meant to be. While they are hooked, make sure they can find what they are looking for. Keep series together where they can easily be accessed.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#13 Students don’t have to have access to all the books all the time. It’s okay to have a read aloud collection.  Just don’t store those books and forget about them. Share them. Keep them circulating.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#14 Know books – not just the books in your collection, but the books that could be a part of it in the future. Keep current! Read blogs that book lovers keep. The #IMWAYR and #nfpb2015 community (follow those twitter hashtags) will keep you in the know. The Nerdy Book club blog (you are following this blog right?) also has a list of blogs on its site.

#15 Add to your collection. Everyone loves new books! It is always exciting to share them. New titles bring renewed life to your library. Unveil them and bring them in with some kind of ceremony and lots of gushing and students will be rushing to read them.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#16 A classroom library requires ongoing upkeep. It’s like a garden. You can’t plant it and expect it to flourish all on its own. It will take time both during the year and possibly on some school breaks to keep things running smoothly and to make necessary changes.

#17 Spend the time being reflective and thinking about organization – as your library grows, you want to still be able to lay hands on a title you are looking for. If your organizational systems makes sense (to you) this will always be possible.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

#18 A library is an investment. It takes time. It takes money. If it takes less money (outright spending), it will take more time (sourcing titles, dealing with donations, writing wish lists, visiting garage sales, etc.) There is no way around this.

#19 You will never be done. Creating a classroom library is a labour of love. Enjoy it. Tinker. Fiddle. Sit in the middle of the floor and read a book. Make new favourites. Revisit old favourites. Move things around. Watch your readers to see what’s working. Get back in there and change some things again.

#20 Whenever you feel a little bit of book shopping guilt, think about the number of readers who will love each title. Each book, really, is priceless.

How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider There's a Book for That

There are some things I didn’t touch on here that I often get asked so let’s make it 25 things 🙂

  • No, I don’t level the books in my library but yes, I know how to find the right books for the right readers when difficulty level is an issue. Students are readers and they need to feel like there are lots of possibilities, not lots of limits.
  • Yes, I do spend a lot of my own money. When I can, I access donations, gifts, books passed on. Sometimes, I am blessed to receive books for my room from a variety of generous people. There can never be too many books and I do my best to pass on books to other classroom or school libraries when I can. But I believe in very big ways in having a room full of books for students to access and I don’t ever regret investing in making this happen for the children I teach.
  • Yes, I do make changes to my classroom library every summer. Sometimes, minor, sometimes more extreme. I do have it all figured out for about five minutes every year and then I get some new ideas or learn something new and . . .
  • No, there is no perfect book purchasing list out there for you. It does exist, but you have to make it and realize that it will change over time to reflect your readers and their interests.
  • Yes, I would love to hear from you! Anything to add? Your own helpful hints? Please share in the comments so that we can continue the conversation.

You may also enjoy:

My Classroom Library: Beyond the books, ten important features

Celebration: Talking Classroom Libraries

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: A room full of nonfiction

Literary Nest Building 101

22 thoughts on “How to organize a classroom library: 20 points to consider

  1. Great post! Even though I’ve been up and running with my classroom library, I’m still not done adding new titles or reorganizing as necessary. I have been enjoying watching students read and enjoy the library that is in place. Thanks for sharing your insights. Hope your first week of school is awesome!

  2. Carrie, I love this post. I have talked to many teachers this fall looking to overhaul their libraries. Are the books in the room right for readers? Are baskets and bins left with enough room for browsing? Are older books weeded and new books added to pique interest?

    One of the questions I hear most is how to get kids to put books back in the right places. I find that having students help with arrangement each year helps keep the library organized and growing across the year.

    Thanks for sharing all of your thinking, Carrie. I always enjoy my stop.


  3. A perfectly timed post, Carrie. I’m moving back into the classroom this year after literacy coaching for several years and having to reconstruct my library. In my effort to “let go” and allow the kids to do more, I’m having them explore the baskets of categories in the library this year and letting THEM create labels/drawings that correspond to each bin. After we learn more about each other, we will create new categories that feed their interests (such as “Motorheads” or “Brave Girls” baskets, I know I have some artsy third graders this year, too). I’m really trying to up the arty and match categories to readers this year by creating a customized classroom library for my kids. Call me crazy. 🙂

    • Not crazy at all! Connected to your learners! Love the basket ideas that you shared! My library is so huge, that some of my bins are fixed – already labelled and staying that way for a while but I have lots of places for student input – like our favourite read aloud bin, help choosing where new books should go, new bin ideas, etc. It is, always, a work in progress! The way it should be! I had very artistically expressive students the past few years – they LOVED particular illustrators and a favourite thing to do was a Mock Caldecott “unit” Have you done that before? So engaging!

  4. I could reread this post 25 times! Like you always say, kids need to be surrounded by quality books, period! Thanks to your shared thinking, I am determined to amp up the number of book talks this year. This was our first week back and I read a Mouse and Mole book (since I noticed last year that tub was untouched). Guess which tub is currently empty?! I think your tips # 2 and 3 are crucial. Kids are waiting for our “book blessing”! Here’s to a joyful new school year of book 💜!

    • Thanks so much Lisa! I am so pleased this post resonated with you. I think teachers don’t realize the power of book talks until we begin doing them often and then it is absolutely incredible – we should give it a name “the empty bin syndrome” 🙂

  5. Your blog is amazing and this post is no exception. Many great points. I have found that since I started buying more books (yes it is expensive but worth it) people notice how much my class appreciates books and we get more donations. Books seem to find more books. Your comment on keeping a list is key for series too. I keep it on my computer and print it off when I head to a city with a bookstore (I don’t really have one). I try to have a few copies of book one in series the class will be most interested in. I can pull it out of a cupboard so friends can read together and it is also the most common book to get lost or damaged.

    • Thank you Aaron. I agree that books do make their way to book lovers! I always say yes to donations. Sometimes I sort through 2 boxes and find only one treasure. Other times, more than 80% of the books are gems that make their way into my classroom library or I pass them on to others. I also keep doubles if I happen upon them of some series so that “peer” reading can occur. Thanks again for the lovely comment.

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  7. Carrie, thank you for this timely post. You always offer such useful advice. Your tips are doable and make less work for us. I will begin writing the titles of series in a notebook as you mentioned so when I’m at ULS or Kids Books I will now have my inventory at my fingertips. No more second guessing! Can’t wait to display the new picture books I bought and read over the summer.

  8. I feel so blessed to have met you today! What synchronicity as this post was actually open as a tab on my home computer awaiting a thorough read. Back story: A link to this post came my way several days ago (I can’t remember right now how it came my way) and I have been slowly absorbing it – over time, like a good book. And, today when you mentioned that you had a blog, I thought that the title sounded familiar, but didn’t connect it to you and this post until now. Wow!

    • It is synchronicity! How interesting is it that you already had this post from “somewhere” Now, I hope you get to work in my room with the students, Miriam and me and be part of our reading community! So excited!

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  11. I loved this post. I am moving to another district and the teacher that is replacing me has never taught 5th grade. I had my students go through my library to find the best books to leave behind to help her start her own library. It was fun to watch the kids “decide” what should leave and what needed to stay for the next group.

    Having the students be a part of creating a library is so important. I can’t wait to start rebuilding my library with my new students. This way I’ll get to know them a bit better and find out what they like to read.

    Talking about books is a great way to learn about each other.

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