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The Best Way to Set Up & Organize Your Classroom Library

Take a look at your classroom library. Are the shelves a mess? Are your book bins overflowing? Does it look like a tornado blew through since the beginning of the year? I feel your pain! Keeping a neat and organized library is no easy task.

In this blog post, I'll share some of the easiest way to set up and organize your classroom library and keep it that way all year long.

How NOT to Organize Your Library

Before we talk about the best way to organize a classroom library, let's talk about what you shouldn't do.

For many years, the trend in education was to level your books and keep them in bins marked with their reading level. In fact, it was considered a best practice. But no matter what system is used - Fountas and Pinell, DRA, Lexile, or AR level - this is the wrong way to set up a library.

classroom library books organized by reading level
Sorting your books by reading level is no longer considered a best practice.

While leveling classroom books may seem like a logical approach to organizing your library, here is what is actually does for students and their growth as readers:

  • Stifles Reading Interests: Leveling a classroom library categorizes books primarily based on reading difficulty rather than subject matter or personal interests. This limits children's choices and restricts their access to a wide range of topics and genres. By prioritizing reading levels, we discourage students from choosing books that capture their curiosity and interest. This does not build a love for reading.

  • Discourages Reading Engagement: When students are constantly made aware of reading levels, it can lead to a fixation on achieving higher levels instead of enjoying reading for the sake of reading. This can turn it into a task or a competition, diminishing the intrinsic motivation to read for pleasure that we want to see in our students.

  • Impacts Self-Esteem: Leveling systems put labels on young readers and can create feelings of inadequacy or superiority among students. Children who are assigned lower-level books may feel less capable than their peers who are reading higher-level books. This can negatively impact their self-esteem and confidence and decrease their motivation to read.

  • Limits Progress: Young children learn best when they are exposed to rich language and vocabulary. Developing readers benefit from encountering new words, sentence structures, and complex ideas, even if they may not fully comprehend every aspect of the text. A leveled library limits their access to these things and impedes their progress as readers.

For all of these reasons, it's critical to provide children with books that match their interests and challenge their abilities, rather than confine them to a those that fit into a narrow range of levels.

So instead of leveling your classroom library, it is far better to create a well-organized and diverse collection of books that encompass a broad range of interests and abilities. This allows students to choose books based on their personal preferences and interests, which in turn builds a true love of reading. This is what creates strong readers.

Where to Get Books for Your Own Library

Before you can start organizing your books, you have to find some, right? If it's your first year teaching or have just had a big change in grade levels, you may be looking to round out your book collection.

Here are some of the best places to find children's books at very little cost:

  • garage sales (look for ones that are advertising kids' clothing or toys)

  • thrift stores

  • public library (they often hold library sales several times per year - check

  • retiring teachers

  • Facebook marketplace

  • Scholastic Book Clubs dollar deals

  • Scholastic Warehouse sales

  • First Book (Title 1 schools only)

  • The Book Bundler (bulk boxes of books at very low prices)

  • Kids Need to Read (if 50% or more of your students live in poverty)

  • The Reading Resource Project

  • Half Price Books donation program

For more information on these programs, check out: Free and Cheap Ways to Get Books for Your Classroom Library

What is the Best Way to Organize a Classroom Library?

Organizing your class library when you have a lot of books can be overwhelming. There are many different ways to sort books and display them. If you have a large, diverse collection with many genres and types of reading materials, I suggest starting by sorting them into the following categories:

  • magazines

  • reference books

  • puzzle books

  • all other books

Next, you're going to further sort and categorize the "all other books" pile into:

  • fiction

  • non-fiction

How to Organize Fiction Books

Now that all the fiction books are separated out, you need to decide on how to sort them so students can find what they want and you can keep track of your books. A great way to do this is by series or author, genre, and topic.

First, separate all the books that belong to a specific series. This will depend on exactly what books you have. They may be easy reader series or chapter books.

Here are some of the series I have in my own classroom library:

  • Magic Tree House

  • Junie B. Jones

  • Fly Guy

  • Boxcar Children

  • Dog Man

  • Rainbow Magic

  • Goosebumps

  • The Bad Guys

  • Geronimo Stilton

  • Amelia Bedelia

  • Jigsaw Jones

  • A to Z Mysteries

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid

  • I Survived

As you can see, these cover a wide-range of reading levels and that's a good thing! You want all of your students, no matter how well they read, to be able to find books that suit them and that they enjoy.

After you all the series books sorted, move on to books by favorite authors. You'll only be separating these when you have multiple titles by the same author that are not part of series.

Some possibilities:

  • Dr. Seuss

  • Jan Brett

  • Tomie dePaola

  • Kevin Henkes

  • Steven Kellogg

  • Leo Lionni

  • William Steig

  • Mo Willems

  • Jack Pretlusky

  • Jon Scieszka

  • Roald Dahl

  • Beverly Cleary

  • Eric Carle

  • Bill Martin Jr.

  • Cynthia Rylant

Some of these authors mostly write picture books and others chapter books. Unless you teach kindergarten or first grade, you will want both in your library. Even fourth and fifth graders enjoy a good picture book!

student reading a picture book

Now you are left with fiction books by random authors that don't belong to a series. These should be sorted by genre or theme. This is really helpful for younger readers because they often have a certain interest, but don't know how to find a book to match it. Being able to browse by theme helps immensely.

Some genres and themes you might have in your library:

  • pets/animal stories

  • historical fiction/time travel

  • mysteries

  • adventures

  • fairy tales and fables

  • superheroes

  • space/science fiction

  • magic/wizards/fairies

  • friendship

  • school

  • holiday stories

  • family

  • back to school

Now that all of your fiction books are sorted, it's time to move on to your nonfiction books.

How to Organize Non-Fiction Books

Sorting and categorizing non-fiction is a bit more straightforward. For the most part, you'll be grouping them by topic.

Here are some idea to get you started:

  • crafts and how-to books

  • art and music

  • wild animals (I keep my Who Would Win? books together in their own basket)

  • pets

  • cookbooks

  • weather and seasons

  • space

  • biographies

  • sports

  • insects

  • plants

  • health and human body

  • countries and cultures

  • holidays

  • transportation

  • technology

  • dinosaurs

  • historical events

  • travel and geography

This list is certainly not all-inclusive. Your categories will be determined by your collection of books.

Keeping Your Library Organized

Now that your books are sorted, how do you keep them that way? If you just stick them on your bookshelves, you'll have a hard time keeping track of your books and will quickly find a mess on your hands.

The only way to keep them neat and in their correct spot is to give students an easy way to put them back where they belong. This is easy to do with book baskets or bins.

If you have mix of picture books and chapter books, you'll probably want bins in several sizes. I also find it helpful to have one color for fiction and another color for non-fiction books. This makes it easy for students to know where to look.

These are what the baskets in my library look like:

small book baskets to organize classroom library

large book bins to organize classroom library

As you can see, I have small baskets for chapter books and large baskets for picture books.

The small bins came from my local Dollar Tree store and cost, you guessed it, just a dollar each.

The large bins are from Really Good Stuff. I'll admit they were quite expensive, but I splurged because 1) they are super sturdy and 2) they are large enough to hold a quite a few big picture books.

Labels for Bins, Baskets, and Books

Next, you need a way to label your baskets. This is a really important step because without labels, students won't be able to return books to the correct bins. There are several good options for book bin labels. You can use:

  • index cards

  • shipping labels

  • print your own (Avery labels work well)

  • buy pre-made labels

If you make your own labels, I suggest including a large, easy to read title (series, author, topic, genre, etc.) and a picture to represent the type of books in that bin. You want to make it easy for students to match each book with the bin it belongs in.

In addition to the baskets for all of my book categories, I also like to have a couple of extra ones: teacher favorites and book hospital (for books that need repair). Books will rotate in and out of these two bins.

The last step in organizing your classroom library is to label your books. This is especially important in primary classrooms to help students match each book to the basket where it belongs. This is easy to do with book label stickers.

There are also several options for these:

  • small return address labels

  • round garage sale stickers

  • print your own (8293 Avery labels)

  • buy pre-made stickers

Each sticker needs to have a number, code, picture, or something that matches what is on the corresponding book basket label. That way students can match them up easily.

If you don't have too many baskets and bins, you can just number each one and then number your stickers. For a larger number of baskets, an easy system is F1, F2, F3, etc. for fiction books and NF1, NF2, NF3 etc. for non-fiction.

round book stickers to organize classroom library

If you buy premade labels and stickers, they usually have matching pictures.

Now if you have a very large number of books, putting a sticker on every single one could take a lot of time. An alternative to stickers is to write the number or code inside the cover or on the back of each book.

I hope this blog post has given you some ideas for developing your own classroom library system. With just a little bit of work, it can stay neat and organized all year long.

P.S. Don't forget to make "Class Librarian" one of your classroom helper jobs and let students be in charge of keeping the books in their proper places!


classroom library book bin labels and stickers

Save yourself a ton of time and effort with these pre-designed classroom library book bin labels with coordinating book stickers!

Available in several different background designs.

Check them all out in my Teacher Pay Teachers shop!

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