By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
The start of a new school year is a great time to think about building or enhancing your classroom library. Even in schools with well-staffed, well-stocked school libraries—which are far too rare—classroom libraries make the difference between being surrounded by books every day and only having access to books on library day. This makes your classroom library especially vital for the many children who do not have books at home and whose families do not make regular visits to the public library.
This post offers tips and strategies from a public librarian on building a balanced, appealing collection while making the most of your limited resources.
Elements of a Vibrant Classroom Library
Most educators would agree that an effective classroom library includes books that represent various interest and reading levels, highlight different types of literature, and reflect a variety of people and cultures. I would argue that along with a balanced collection, a classroom library should have a clear system of organization and clear procedures for borrowing and returning books.
Offering designated spaces to display favorites selected by teachers and students, as well as books on current and upcoming topics of study, adds interest and makes it easy for students to browse. This also helps incorporate the library into daily classroom activities, ensuring that it is a key resource rather than a storage space or an afterthought.
Look for a much more comprehensive discussion about establishing a classroom library, along with practical tips for evaluating and organizing your own library, in “Building an Effective Classroom Library,” an article by Susan Catapano, Jane Fleming, and Martille Elias from the Journal of Language and Literacy Education.
Is More Always Better?
One common recommendation for classroom libraries is to include at least 10 books per student and a minimum of 100 books overall. That is a good goal, but the quality and appeal of the individual books matters at least as much as the number of titles. A small, well-considered selection that grows over time is more likely to excite young readers than a large collection of random titles selected for the sake of filling up a bookshelf is.
Selection Tools and Techniques
If you work with a professional school librarian or media specialist, that person is likely to have excellent resources and advice for building your classroom library and should be your first stop. If your school library is staffed by an aide or parent volunteers, they generally lack the subject expertise to provide much assistance. The resources below are useful even if you have a media specialist to work with, but they offer an especially good starting place if you don’t.
Public libraries have collection development policies to guide selection decisions. Some school districts have similar policies that cover classroom libraries, but they tend to be broadly written and focus on handling challenges to materials rather than how to select materials in the first place. Before you begin building or updating your collection, make sure you are aware of any policies that may be in place in your school or district.
Next, consider your collection priorities. How much of the collection should directly support your curriculum? How important are popular materials that build reading motivation but may not directly support instruction? What is the right distribution of reading and interest levels for your classroom population, and how can you identify reading levels in non-stigmatizing ways? How will you ensure that your collection reflects and supports diversity?
Once you have made these decisions, you will have a framework to guide your selections using some of the following resources.
- Public libraries. Your local public library may have booklists for various ages and interests, and youth services staff may be able to help you identify books and authors popular with kids in your area. As with any professional connection, it helps to build a working relationship with librarians before you need help and to recognize that they may have conflicting demands on their time. You may also want to look at public library resources from outside your area. Many library systems (including Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, Multnomah County Library in Oregon, and New York Public Library) offer excellent booklists and recommendations online.
- Award lists. The Newbery and the Caldecott are the big names in youth book awards, but the American Library Association (ALA) offers other award programs and notable lists that can help you identify high-quality books of interest to your students. For instance, the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award spotlights the most distinguished books published each year for beginning readers. The Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizes excellent books by African American authors and illustrators and reflecting the African American experience. For a full list of ALA youth media awards, visit the ALA website. For reader’s choice and other book awards by state, author Cynthia Leitich Smith hosts a nicely organized list.
- Review journals. Public librarians and school library media specialists rely heavily on professional review sources when making selection decisions. School Library Journal, The Horn Book Magazine, VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates), and Booklist all make some content available online, and they are useful tools for keeping up with new releases.
- Selected websites. As you seek to create a balanced collection that reflects a wide range of cultures and experiences, sites like A Mighty Girl and We Need Diverse Books can be invaluable. As you consider genres that might be less familiar to you—graphic novels, perhaps—specialized sites like No Flying No Tights can help fill in the gaps. And as you try to keep up with what’s new and popular in youth literature, sites like Kidsreads, which posts reviews and conducts author interviews, are very handy. Last but not least, if you have a public library card, you may well have access to the wonderful NoveList database, which is like a librarian-curated version of Goodreads, with full editorial reviews and booklists for a wide range of subjects and interests.
If you select your classroom library materials based on professional recommendations, popular interest, and a clear collection-development philosophy, your students will be well-served and you will be in a good position to handle a materials challenge if the need should arise.
Sources for Books (and Funds!)
Unfortunately, most teachers have little to no official budget to invest in their classroom libraries. Organizations like First Book provide books at very low cost to Title I schools and those with at least 70 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Kids Need to Read also offers free books to qualifying organizations that serve low-income students (mouse over “Donations” and click “Request a Donation”). DonorsChoose.org gives teachers a way to reach out to the public for help crowdfunding classroom needs.
You may find even more help closer to home in the form of colleagues who are retiring or changing grade levels, families and businesses willing to purchase books from a wish list, and students who are moving up to the next grade and want to leave their own copies of favorite books for next year’s class. Reach out to your community through neighborhood social media (such as Nextdoor), online classified ads (such as Craigslist), school bulletin boards, your classroom website, notes home to families, and personal emails.
None of these avenues make up for the fact that school funding is insufficient to meet basic needs in many districts across the country, but it is heartening to see so many people and organizations making a valiant effort to do their part.
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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Allington, Richard L. “What Really Matters When Working with Struggling Readers.” The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 2013.
Bridges, Lois. Compendium of Research: Ensuring Student Achievement and Teacher Effectiveness Through Proven Research. Scholastic.
Catapano, Susan, Jane Fleming, and Martille Elias. “Building an Effective Classroom Library.” Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 5(1), 2009.
Jensen, Karen. “Sunday Reflections: Classroom Libraries Are a Stark Reminder That Not All Schools Are Created Equal.” Teen Librarian Toolbox (blog), August 19, 2018.
National Council of Teachers of English. “Statement on Classroom Libraries.” May 31, 2017.