How I ORGANIZE My Classroom Library [Part Two in the Classroom Library Series]

In my first few years of teaching, my classroom library sparkled on the day before the first day of school... every book in the proper place, facing the right direction, the corners all lined up. I'd put the last label on the last book and put my hands on my hips like a conquistador, thinking, I've done it this time. This is the year for an organized classroom library. 

Then the kids came.

And all heck broke loose.

Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit, maybe. But I'll tell 'ya what, I have gone through many "extreme makeovers" in how I organize the books (and other texts) in my classroom library. Only in the last few years have I been satisfied with my system enough to only make minor tweaks or additions. But I learned a lot in those early years about what works for my students and what works for me.

In Part One of this series of blog posts, I talked about arranging our classroom libraries, putting the pieces in place to create an inviting and purposeful area. Here in Part Two, I want to share how I organize the books within it.

For me, an organized classroom library, one that can remain organized, has four NEEDS:
  • It needs to be easy to browse for something interesting to read.
  • It needs to be easy to find something specific for which you are looking.
  • It needs to be easy to return a book to the correct place.
  • And last, and just as importantly, it needs back-up plans. In other words, it needs measures to fall back on when the first lines of "organizational" defense are broken, or ignored.

With these "needs" in mind, what follows is how I go about containing books, categorizing books, labeling books, and hmmm... leveling books?

Containing Books

I prefer to have every book in my classroom library belong to a container, as opposed to putting books directly onto bookshelves. I know what you're thinking: either, "Yes! I love containers too!" or "Hang on, isn't that an inefficient use of space?" I could definitely cram more books into a bookshelf if there weren't any buckets or tubs getting in the way, but I think the advantages to an abundance of containers outweigh the square footage they eat up.

The advantages? Physical separation of your categories, and mobility! You don't have to move every single book in order to rearrange or add something; you can just move the containers around. I think it also helps students browse, because with a container, especially a smaller one, they can remove it from the shelves and browse the books within it easily, without stressing out about keeping each individual book in place.

I teach third grade, so I have a large supply of both picture books and chapter books, which means I need different size containers. Here are the "basics" for my library:

Ice Cube Bins are cheap and great for chapter books (holds about 6-10). I use them for my chapter book series categories. I also use some to hold magazines, which work 'okay,' but magazine holders work better. Makes sense, I guess.
Plastic Shoe Boxes are also cheap and are great for early chapter book "readers," good for chapter books (you have to fill it pretty full for the books not to slide down), and 'okay' for picture books (they'd be better if the "walls" were taller). I use them for all of my nonfiction categories as well as my large-quantity series (e.g. Magic Tree House).
Large Storage Baskets are a little pricey but are very durable. Great for large quantities of picture books, or any other large-size texts, like atlases, comic books, and catalogs.
Small Storage Baskets are also a little pricey. Great for chapter books. I use them for my "partner books" chapter book category (more on that later).

These are clearly not the end-all-be-all of book holders. They have worked well for me, though. Before you buy something in bulk, make sure of a couple of things:
  • Will it fit into my bookshelves? 
  • Will it remain standing upright when books are inside of it? (Or will the whole thing tip over?)
  • Will it last more than one school year?
I also love finding unique ways to hold books. This is completely a personal-taste-thing, but I think a charming or unusual book container adds instant character to your whole library. It's like the stylish shoes you wear with blue jeans and a plain tee.

Before we move on, we should probably talk about the elephant in the room, right? You've noticed all of my green and blue book boxes in my photos, and you're wondering why I haven't included those in my list of "basics," since I have like, 40 of them. Well, I built those from scratch. So yes, they are an integral part of my basic book container collection, but no, you won't find them in a store. Sorry.

Categorizing Books

If you looked at each of my containers as a separate category, well, I have a LOT of categories. But the majority of my containers are really just a part of two categories: authors and series. For me, instead of having one basket of books by all of our favorite authors, I have a separate container for each favorite author (same thing for each series). When it comes to literature, a favorite author or a favorite series are the two most likely sources for the next book I read, so it makes sense to me to have a multitude of options for students in these two categories.

The remainder of my fiction is, in general, categorized by genre, like poetry, historical fiction, etc. My nonfiction books are categorized in a half-genre/half-topical way. My main categories are: Animals, Science, History, Sports, and Biography. (I'm currently debating whether I have enough books about math to add that category.)

What factors go into settling on a category?  I try to think about: the current interests of my students, if I have enough books to even constitute a category, and a bit of "quality control," although I tend to downplay this factor when it comes to a series. Yep, I have both Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid categories.

If you try to have a category for every single book in your entire library (and believe me, I've tried), it becomes frustrating, and expensive. It goes something like this... "Hmm, does this dinosaur book fit into my 'animals' bucket or my 'history' bucket? Ooooh, here's another dinosaur book. Well, why don't I just add a new category called, 'Dinosaurs.' Hmm, two books... welp, I better go buy some more dinosaur books to fill that bucket."

So after I overcame the rage the icky feeling of not having a category for every book, I just created a few catch-all containers. I have an "Other" category in my nonfiction bookcase, a rack of random chapter books, and two general picture book tubs ("Realistic Fiction" and "Fantasy") which I guess are technically categories, but when they're that big, they are more of a catch-all.

Below is a list of all my current categories, if you want to get all nitty gritty on me. You can click on the image to get a printer friendly copy.

Partner Books
As my library grew, I fell into more and more duplicate copies of books. So I eventually created a whole separate category with these, called "Partner Books," where students will find two copies of the same book that they can read together. It is a hit!

Guilt-Free "Hands Off" Shelf
For the good of my future students, I have a shelf of books that I do not allow students to touch unless they personally ask to read a specific book. This shelf contains the books that I use in lessons or read alouds. I used to feel too guilty to do this, but it's the only way I (1) keep them all in one place, and (2) don't lose them, which would be sad for my future students.

Labeling Books

Labeling your books is highly dependent on your personality. Many teachers don't put any sort of label on their books, relying on students to return their books correctly without them. If that works for you, that is awesome. I prefer to label any book that fits into a category. While it takes some extra time, it has helped a lot with getting books back where they belong.

My general principle for labeling books is to make it as simple as possible for students, while keeping it simple for me. I use peel off 1" x 2 and 5/8" mailing labels for both containers and books. Because labels do not come cheap, I create them so I can get four book labels out of each one.

I print them out, cut apart all of the book labels, and store each type in a separate baggie. When I'm labeling a book, I:
1. find the right label and peel it,
2. stick it to the upper right corner of the book, and
3. cover the label with a piece of standard invisible tape.

For books belonging to a series category or an author category, the label only says "series" or "author," not the specific name. This GREATLY cuts down on how many types of labels I need. I rely on students' common sense to get the book to the correct author or series container. It's a similar situation for my nonfiction topics: each one has a different color of smiley-sticker, so I just add that sticker to the "nonfiction" book label.

To be a little more efficient, I keep a basket in my library area with all of my labels and supplies.

The image above on the right is our "Books to File" basket. This has been CRUCIAL to keeping the library organized. Instead of rolling my eyes and mumbling under my breath every time I'd find a book shoved into the wrong container, I created a non-judgmental "way out" for students who aren't sure where to return a book. Then periodically, my library helpers unload the basket and put the books away correctly. (More on this system in Part Four, when I introduce the library to students.)

Now this next idea I haven't tried yet, but I think it might help the students who come to me halfway through the year who tell me they have nothing to read. It's kind of like on Amazon, where the site will suggest other products based on your shopping history. I think I'll make a few of these little signs and post them on certain book containers. Maybe I could get suggestions from students too.

Don't forget to put your name in the books you own! I normally just write mine inside the front cover, but you can click HERE for a "classier look" that you can print onto labels.
Simple Classroom Library Labels
And click on the image to the right for some editable labels, similar to what I've been talking about. You just print them on a sheet of labels. (Keep in mind, they're pretty simple-looking. WAY cuter labels are out there, especially for containers.)

Leveling Books?

To level or not to level, that is the question. For me, I have WAY too many other category and labeling things going on to also level all of my books. That's one reason why I don't put levels on my books.

The second reason is more about life. I'm trying to build real readers by building this classroom library, and part of being a real reader is knowing how to choose a good-fit book for yourself.

I did level all my chapter books during one of my very first years teaching. I know many, many teachers level their books, even categorizing their whole library based on books' reading levels, and run successful classroom libraries, but for me, it didn't work.

I felt like it was (1) narrowing the library too much for each child, and (2) changing how students went about finding books. Instead of looking for something interesting, their first instinct became looking at the level. I just wasn't comfortable with it. There's probably a better way to incorporate a leveling system into a classroom library than how I did it, but I think I'm in too deep now without it.

The key to not leveling your library is to put in the time teaching and modeling how to find good-fit books, and staying involved in the reading-life of each student. Easy? No. Rewarding? Oh yeah.

*    *    *

Now before you go jump in the deep end and redo your whole organizational system, first take some time to evaluate what is working and what isn't working. I hope you'll take a moment to comment below about the former. And I hope some things I've shared here can help you with the latter.

It doesn't really matter how many books you have in your classroom library if it's not organized well. But, I'll take a large organized library over a small organized library any day. So how does one accumulate books without emptying one's life savings? Be on the lookout for Part Three in my series, where I talk all about how I stock my classroom library.


  1. What a great blog post! I will definitely be reorganizing my 4th grader class library very soon! Happy to have found your blog from Facebook! :)
    Pinkadots Elementary

  2. I'm really enjoying your library posts. One of my goals this summer was to get my classroom library under control / more organized. I can't wait to read the last two parts of your library series.I have to be back to work in 10 days, and students start in 17 days, so I'm down to the wire!

    1. Thanks shari bee! I'm hard at work to get these posts out to you! Thanks for your patience!

  3. Your classroom library posts have been very interesting! I'm still in the tweaking stage of getting my library organized in a way that works. You have some great suggestions here! I even used one of your suggestions from your last post to set up my room for the coming year - have more than one inviting reading area for students. I'm looking forward to reading your upcoming posts!

    The Reinspired teacher

    1. That's awesome, Lori! Glad I could help out a bit! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for your ideas and resources!

  5. You are my hero. You just saved me hours of agonizing categorizing. I can't wait to get to work tomorrow to get started!

  6. I have gone through many of the same experiences and thoughts you have with regards to my own class library, glad to see I'm not alone. Thanks for so many great ideas. I found that though I sorted my books like you did, the kids still didn't put them in the correct bin. What I thought was obvious, wasn't to them. Your idea of putting a sticker on the book (e.g., series) is brilliant and I will indeed do this when I return to school. I also loved the "Books to File" bin idea and having the class librarians replace the books. Thanks for the wonderful ideas.

  7. Thanks for all of the great tips. Your post is well thought-out, which is very helpful to my more spontaneous side! --love your design background and how it helps so much with organization. My library has not been looking great this year, and my centers, etc, have overtaken every empty space available.... my spontaneous side could not wait another minute,, in the midst of teaching, I've started "project re-organization"..what was I thinking???
    I love your non-leveling philosophy, but I think some kids still need a little extra guidance. I have started writing the level on the inside back cover of each book. This is an easy way for the kids, or me, to check a book level, if needed, but still allows the kids to make the initial choice based on "good-fit" strategies. The "book leveler" app, makes it go pretty fast. I hope to have them all done by the end of the year. I love your ideas of using unique containers and the "books to file" bin, too. Thanks so much for your post!

  8. Your posts have been SO helpful! I plan to take an entire day to organize my library before school starts and this information is going to guide me. Thank you!

  9. Your posts have been SO helpful! I plan to take an entire day to organize my library before school starts and this information is going to guide me. Thank you!

  10. I can't wait to start using your tips. Thank you for the list of categories and book labels!!

  11. I love your library organizational system. I am in the process of matching up all the same authors and displaying my books in bins like you have. QUESTION: Suppose I have too many books by the same author and they all won't fit into one bin. Would I make a duplicate bin to put in the rest of these books in? Surely you have run across that same scenario in your library.
    Thank you Jill W.

    1. Hi Jill! Too many books by the same author... what a fantastic problem to have! :) Yes, the two-bin idea is a good solution. I also enjoy having a few unique containers, so that particular author might be a good candidate to find something different and bigger to hold them all in, even if it needs to sit on a different shelf or the floor.

    2. Makes complete sense. Thank you! What about going the other extreme? Still seperating books by same author and I now have LOTS of stacks of only 2-3 books. So I'm thinking when I make my container labels I could combine perhaps 3-4 authors in the same bin and put all the authors' on the label. Thank you for your time. Being organized has never come easy or natural for me. Being a teacher has forced me to learn how which I am super excited about. With learning anything new that you're passionate about comes TONS of questions. Thank you for your patience

    3. I think that's a great idea--much simpler than getting a bunch of small containers to separate those (and much cheaper than trying to buy more books by those authors just to fill the baskets). I think the combined basket will work perfectly!

  12. I can't tell you how many hours I have spent researching online different library setups, arranging, rearranging my classroom but nothing has worked. I think your style is absolutely what I want! You are awesome... beyond words! Thank you!!

    I teach 2nd grade so I have Junie B. Jones books, Judy Moody, Stinky Cheese Man, etc and many of the same copies of several books. In your opinion, what is a good # of the same copy should I keep on the shelf? Thank you for your patience with my questions and answering them thoroughly.

    1. Hey Jill! I think it mostly depends on how much space you have and how popular the book is. Like Stinky Cheese Man is always a hit, so 2 or 3 copies of that book is no problem. If you have several copies of some of those chapter books, you might consider having a special shelf for "book club" books, where students could initiate their own book study. Just an idea. -Michael

  13. I absolutely LOVE your library setup. I spent the summer color coordinating bins to author, series, and GR levels. Your piece on adding the label to the book itself is brilliant. work computer would not connect to my home printer, so I went with colored dots to match the colored buckets. It'll be a process for my students to learn, but it was definitely the missing piece from last year. Thank you!

  14. Wonderful ideas and thoroughly written. Thank you so much!


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