Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Guide to Classroom Library Organization

If you are an elementary teacher with lots of books you need to organize, this post will help you organize logically. This system allows for growth without a need for complete reorganization as your collection grows. I will take you through each step of the process. I suggest organizing by topic rather than by level. I base this suggestion on advice from leading experts in literacy.

The Complete Classroom Library Organization Guide

Your library is one of the most important features of your classroom. We spend lots of money collecting wonderful books, so it’s important to have a good organizational system in place for our students and for ourselves. A good organizational system will help make your books more usable.

I've been asked by several colleagues for advice on organizing their classroom library, and I've seen lots of questions about it online. When I started thinking about how I actually did it, I was pretty surprised. 

Classroom libraries are always growing. It’s  best to have an organizational system that allows for growth. I used my knowledge of children’s literature, elementary curriculum, and teacher preferences to design this system of organization.

I started out by creating a concept map. This is how my mind works. 

The complete classroom library organizational guide.
Click here to get a better view!

See why I was surprised? It looks pretty overwhelming. My goal is that it will all makes sense by the end of the post! Don't worry, you won't actually have all those categories.

My rule of thumb is to have between 20-50 books in a category. I store them in baskets and crates. Since I have such a large volume of books, I aligned them to the 6 week themes in my reading curriculum. I rotate my books every 6 weeks. If there’s an extremely popular category (like Dr. Suess) it will stay out longer. I assign a number to each category; then I put a sticker on every book with the category number. By clearly labeling the books, I make sure it’s easy to replace them. I can easily give this task to any student with confidence. It took me forever, but I’m so glad it’s done!

I also recommend getting a stamp with your name on it from an office supply store.

With my system, the seasonal category trumps all others. I use this rule when sorting all my other files as well (computer, Pinterest, centers, etc).

One thing you will have to decide is how to classify books about all the seasons I put these with my science books, but I could see the logic of putting them here. I rotate these books according to the season. I break down some of my seasons into smaller categories.
I base my decisions on when each season begins. This is important to know because some holidays are somewhat between seasons. For example, I categorize St. Patrick’s Day as a spring holiday. I put my apple books with fall. You will need to make decisions about this and stick with it. 

If you don't have many of these, just call them "seasonal," otherwise, make a category for each season. Continue breaking the categories into more specific groups until they are manageable. 

Classroom Library Organization: Seasonal Books
Concept map pictures can be found in this Google Doc.

Most reading experts advise organizing books by topic rather than by level. My system is topic based, but it does allow for a small section of loosely leveled books. Primary teachers often have a collection of very simple books for students to read independently. These books have strong picture support, patterns, short sentences, or decodable text. It makes sense to keep these together. This is supported by the 2 Sisters (developers of CAFE and Daily 5, see the blog post and video listed below). Primary teachers may also have some students reading chapter books with no picture support. Since these texts aren’t accessible to most of my students, and I don’t have many of them, I keep them separate.

I have debated about what to call my easy readers. One of my colleagues told me she calls her books “hard,” “harder,” and “hardest.” She talked about all kids wanting to think they are reading hard books. I used this method for a while, but too many of my students were intimidated by the word hard, so now I have an “easy” basket.

Regardless of how you choose to label any books you want to level, experts advise organizing the majority of your classroom library by topic.

Fountas and Pinnell (see page 14) 

Most teachers develop collections of authors and characters they and their students love. I have a basket for favorite authors and a basket for favorite characters. I also added one for teacher favorites this year because I just wanted them to be accessible all the time. I didn’t want to have to dig at all. If I have a sizeable collection, I separate that author/character to their own category. 

I use the basic subjects of school to help me determine my big categories. I do not strictly sort books by fiction and non-fiction, but I did design my concept map this way because I thought it was helpful. If you have a very small library, you might want to be clear about fiction and non-fiction, but with a large library, I like to be a little more relaxed. I look at the content of the book to decide where to place it. If a book has a dog in it, but the book is more about being a friend than being a dog, I would put it in the “friends” category. If a book is about a pet dog that goes on a fictional adventure, I’d probably put it in the dogs category.

If I am teaching about fire safety, it is convenient to have Daisy the Fire Cow in the same location as a book about what it is like to be a fire fighter. This sets me up to discuss the differences between fiction and non-fiction, and it makes it easy to find books for compare/contrast lessons.

I suggest beginning with these categories: science, social studies, health, language arts, math, fiction

Science: the first way I divide science is living vs. non-living. Chances are you will want to do this right at the beginning. One of the trickiest areas of sorting is where to put books about habitats. Generally, they would go in science under living things.

Classroom library organization: Science books
Concept map pictures can be found in this Google Doc.

Social Studies: This is a very broad area. Books about maps, landforms, people, sports, arts, communities, and history all go here.

Classroom library organization: social studies
Concept map pictures can be found in this Google Doc.

Health: I put the topics covered by elementary health curriculum here: safety, mental health, the body, food, and social skills.

Language Arts: ABC books, books about being a writer, books to help you teach about language go here. This is also where I would put books I like to use as mentor texts. It just makes it easier.

Classroom library organization: health and language arts
Concept map pictures can be found in this Google Doc.

Math: These are easy to identify for the most part. Remember the point here is for you to be able to find and use books. If there’s a book you like to use in association with a math lesson, it should go here.
Classroom library organization: math
Concept map pictures can be found in this Google Doc.

Fiction: this will be your largest category. I put songs and poetry here, they will probably be sorted out later. Honestly, I try to put books in other places if I can. For example, a book like Tacky would go in with my social skills or favorite authors section rather than my fiction section. Fiction is harder to sort, so if a book fits somewhere else, I put it there!

Classroom library organization: fiction
Concept map pictures can be found in this Google Doc.

I think fiction is hard to sort! The obvious method would be to sort by genre, but then I end up with really large sections of fantasy and realistic fiction. Additionally, I'm not quite sure what to  do with stories that would be realistic except that they are about a family of otters.  The big categories I decided on are People Stories, Animal Stories, Fantasy, Rhythm and Rhyme, Humor, Folktales, School, Movies and TV. Most of these categories can be broken down further. Take a look at the outline in my downloadable guide.

If you followed this procedure, you have your major categories established. The number of books in each category will vary based on the size of your books and the size of your container. For optimal use, you want students to be able to flip through the books easily; I think 20-50 books is a good size. For more detailed listing of the sub-categories, get this outline (and concept map sections). 

 I tried to make sure I had lots of subcategories for each major category. I certainly wouldn't expect anyone to use all the categories I include in my concept map, but teachers tend to acquire large collections of books related to the topics they teach.

This year I'm adding two categories: new books and book hospital. When I get new books mid-year, it's hard to find time to categorize and label them. I think a new books box will get them into circulation faster. Hopefully giving the students a book hospital will prevent them from interrupting me to tell me about a damaged book.

This post turned out to be a bit more involved than I'd originally planned! If you found it helpful, I'd really appreciate hearing it in the comments! I created some labels to go with all these categories. The  product covers much of the same information in this post, and it includes over 200 labels. There's also an editable page if you need to add anything.

The outline with the concept map pictures that I've mentioned several times also includes this little quick guide.

If you found this post to be interesting or fun, I'd love for you to connect with me!

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photo credit: Dr. Seuss collection via photopin (license)


  1. Great post! You did a lot of work and really broke it down. How and where do you store your out-of-rotation books? I've heard the easy books called "everybody books". Meaning "everybody" can enjoy them (not too hard). When I was in the classroom (4th grade), I kept a basket of these easy readers out. I didn't label them anything.

    My Bright Blue House

  2. Wow, you've put a lot of thought and effort into organizing your library, and I love that you've laid it all out so others can too. This was a great read, and you've motivated me to start working on a post about my organization system - which is completely different!

  3. Whoa, you have been busy! Subject is important to me, too. And bins... I have many, many bins, some labeled, some memorized. All. Over. the Room. :) Great post. Kathleen
    Kidpeople Classroom

  4. This was a great post. Well thought out. I know I will be referring back to this next year when I am back into my own classroom again. Thank you so very much for sharing this. I found this so very helpful.

  5. Thank you so much for all the time you put into sharing this with us! What a wonderful post!


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