If You Build It: Classroom Libraries Create a Nation of Readers

One of my favorite Edu-Twitter moments from the past summer was witnessing, in real time, the emphatic and unified voice of American libraries and readers in response to an ill-conceived Forbes opinion piece titled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” In the article, which was subsequently taken off the Forbes website a mere two days after being published, university economist Panos Mourdoukoutas asserted that local libraries are no longer useful. The piece specifically argued “[Libraries] don’t have the same value they used to.” While much of the article is problematic (and wrong) for a variety of reasons, I actually agree with Mourdoukoutas on this point: libraries don’t have the same value today as they did years ago. As a teacher in a time when cell phone addiction is rampant, critical thinking discouraged by many in power, and political talking points include things like “Truth isn’t truth,” libraries are undeniably more important and valuable today than ever before.

The most local of all of my libraries is my classroom library, and it has undergone a steady evolution over the past seven years to become the driving force of the reading culture in my classroom and pedagogy that it is today. Making the decision to build a classroom library can be a daunting task, but the first (and best) step is simply to start. To do it.

Like any classroom librarian, I started small. I brought in my personal books from home, inherited a bookcase here and there, began to share my reading life with my students, and asked them to talk to me about theirs. As the years went by and my shelves began to fill, I soon realized that maintaining a true classroom library — a library that meets the needs of all readers in the room — meant more than simply accumulating a lot of books. What matters most is providing access to hundreds (thousands, even) of high-interest books that teens want to read AND arranging those books in such a way that students can quickly find what they need, when they need it, and without much teacher assistance.

BUILDING THE LIBRARY

Getting books into the classroom is important, but it isn’t easy. It can be time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. In the seven years that I’ve been cultivating a classroom library, discounts, donations, and grants are the best ways I’ve found to get additional books in the hands of my students without completely depleting your paycheck:

Discounts

 

Donations

  • Generous teacher friends willing to “pay it forward”
  • Letter to parents asking for castoffs
  • Communicating to students that you’re open to donations — I’ve found seniors like to go through a bit of a purging process before heading off to college
  • Scouring the school lost and found at the end of the school year, after students have left for the summer and lockers have been cleaned out

 

Grants/Giveaways/Crowdsourcing

 

ORGANIZING THE LIBRARY

The organization of the classroom library is one of the most important aspects of library maintenance. In the early years of my library, I gave little thought to how the books were arranged, first throwing them all together with no categorization, then moving to general and basic organization by genre. I made these choices because they were conventional and easy, but that was the problem. These methods of organization were easy for me. I hadn’t given enough consideration to the needs of my students and what would make navigating the classroom library easy for them.

A few years ago, two events aligned that led to me overhauling the setup of my classroom library. The first was that I was lucky enough to be selected as a Book Love Foundation Grant winner, and an influx 506 new books were about to be added to my classroom collection. The second was that I was moving to a new classroom. Because I was literally starting with a clean slate and adding a significant number of books to the library, this was the perfect time to give the collection a makeover. Once the shipments of new books arrived my classroom total would be in the neighborhood of 2,500 books, and I knew my standard genre categories (including a Fantasy-Science Fiction hybrid that made up nearly one-fourth of the entire library) simply weren’t going to cut it.

Over the past two years I’ve refined the “sections” of my library into over 60 separate and specific categories that allow students to navigate what might otherwise be a daunting compilation of books.

Each section has a designated label that I place on the spine of the books that belong to that particular categorization, making identification and reshelving as easy as possible. In addition, I attach the name of the category and the label on a large binder clip that fits perfectly on the bookshelves, so the sections can be adjusted as they grow or shrink in size.

I purchased the majority of the label stickers from Demco, and the rest I created myself and printed them using Processing Spine Labels 1″ x 3/4″ sheets available from the Demco website. There are certainly many books that blur the lines of genre, but this setup has unquestionably been a positive for my students, allowing them to go from book to book without the avoided reading slump.

 

Much like the fact that my classroom library is not the same today as it was mere years ago, I know it will not be exactly the same years from now. The classroom library is a living organism that grows, changes, and adapts to meet the needs of the students who are in front of me in any given year. As readers’ interests and needs change, so too will the books that line the walls around them. After all, it really isn’t my library as much as it’s our library. And having these books in the classroom itself produces huge benefits:

  • Provides access to high-interest books
  • Facilitates book talks, speed dating with books, book spine poetry, etc.
  • Demonstrates that reading is a valued priority in this room

This is all to say that, when the dust settles, I guess Panos Mourdoukoutas was absolutely right all along. Mr. Hall’s classroom library doesn’t have the same value it used to, but I’m not exactly mad about that fact. My students are reading.

And thinking.

And learning.

And growing.

And good luck putting a value on that.

Austin Hall teaches English 9 and Strategic Reading at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines. He serves as Co-Coordinator of Publications for the Iowa Council of Teachers of English and produces The ICTE Podcast.