Do We Teach Dewey … or Don’t We? A School Library Lesson

Do We Teach Dewey ... or Don't We? A School Library Lesson - I don't teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System and you don't have to either. There's a better way to teach students how to find a book in our School Libraries and it supports Math. Read on to find out how I do Dewey... #NoSweatLibraryI don’t teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System during Library Orientation. In fact, I don’t teach it at all!

The eye-opener came my second year as a librarian when I was telling students (during an incredibly boring orientation) that library books were originally shelved behind the circulation desk, and the DDC was created so librarians could organize books to find one when a patron asked for it. I suddenly realized that the DDC is for me to know for organizing books, not for students to know for finding one.

Students only need to know how to find a number on a shelf, and anyone who can put 3 or 4 numbers in consecutive order can do that—even a kindergartner!


Few School Librarians understand “Classes” and “Divisions” of DDC, or what it means that DDC organizes those Classes & Divisions by discipline. While the 10 Classes are pretty easy to remember, most School Librarians know only a few Dewey Divisions. Quick: name the 10 Divisions of the 700s Arts & Leisure. And that’s an easy one! If we School Librarians don’t even know the DDCS, why should a kid?

Secondly, the AASL National School Library Standards never mention the Dewey Decimal Classification System. (Nor did the Standards for a 21st Century Learner!) It’s not even listed in the Glossary or the Index. It’s only at the School Library level that there’s a hint at a classification system:

IV. CURATE C. SHARE 2. The school library facilitates the contribution and exchange within and among learning communities by including and tracking collection materials in a system that uses standardized approaches to description & location. (p.62)

As for School Librarians, there’s not even a hint at a classification system; this is as close as they get:

IV. CURATE A. THINK 2. School librarians challenge learners to act on an information need by designing opportunities for learners to explore possible information sources. (p. 50)

I particularly like the wording “opportunities for learners to explore,” and I’ve written about such opportunities for Science and for Social Studies that coordinates both the discipline of Dewey and classroom learning.

So, if our own Standards don’t specify the DDCS for us or for learners, we don’t need to teach Dewey!

Finally, the trend in education is away from content-based instruction and toward developing critical-thinking through inquiry and problem-solving. The school library is all about inquiry and problem-solving, so why would we continue to teach a content-based lesson on the Dewey Decimal Classification System?


Students only need to know how to find a Dewey number on a shelf, and even a kindergartner can put 3 numbers in consecutive order! A lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun! | No Sweat LibraryAs School Librarians, our main concern is about helping students learn how to use an organization system to locate resources. Thus, we teach students about our online catalog, and that, after using it to identify whether the school library has a book, they only need a number to find the book on the shelf.

This goes beyond just a lesson; it touches on the latest trend of dumping Dewey for a “kid-friendly” word-based system. I’m astonished when I hear this, since Dewey is itself a short, simple notation for locating a book on the shelf. I doubt that kids are any more likely to “learn” letter acronyms than Dewey numbers.

They’ll still have to search By Subject, we’ll still have to teach them how to use the system to find a book, and we’ll still need to put signs on the shelves, all of which we can do just as easily with Dewey numbers!

NoSweat Library Dewey Decimal Library Lesson presentation slide - They rarely visit the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library, especially if we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts.

A slide about place value from my math lessons.

Students do need to understand that each place value in a Dewey decimal number stands for a more specific subject or topic, so more decimals mean a narrower topic of a book. What those subjects or topics are should be a sign on a shelf, not a scrap of trivia in a kid’s brain.

Granted, for elementary students, especially very young ones who haven’t learned about decimals, Dewey numbers may seem a bit daunting, but even a kindergartner quickly learns to count to 100, and helping kids discern and practice numerical order is a more important skill to focus on than what the numbers stand for.

It’s incredible that many of my middle schoolers can’t do this, so a lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun! At least it always is for my students since I changed my lessons from content to process!


Here's a great way to bring Math classes into the school library: review decimal concepts & library organization by having students locate Dewey Decimal-numbered books on the shelves. I do lessons with 2 different grade levels! | No Sweat LibraryI suggest that our reluctance to focus on number location is due to math anxiety—after all, most librarians seem to come from a language arts background, not a math one. But think about it: Numbers and decimals are part of the math curriculum, so why not bring in math classes for a Dewey lesson? They rarely use the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the school library, especially when we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts. And it certainly answers the common question in math about “When are we ever going to use this?”

Thanks to a suggestion from my library colleague, Cindy Nietubicz, I bring both 6th and 7th grade Math classes into the library for a Dewey Decimal Lesson. The timing is perfect for us—these math classes begin decimal units about 5 weeks into the school year, when our ELA fiction reading pattern is well established and students are eager to check out Dewey books.

My math lessons serve to activate prior math knowledge about what students should already know about decimals, so it prepares them for their upcoming unit. With 6g students we review place values and sequencing decimals; with 7g students we review adding and subtracting decimals. Students practice how decimals are used in the library by locating Dewey-decimal-number books on the shelf. Math teachers like having this fun, non-graded review where they can see which students are having trouble with decimals.

NoSweat Library Dewey Decimal Library Lesson presentation slide - They rarely visit the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library, especially if we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts.Animated lesson slide for students to practice putting decimals in order.

After the practice activity, students have plenty of time to browse for Dewey books to check out. Many get an interesting book they find during the activity. Others are stimulated to use my signage to find Dewey numbers of their favorite topics. When students are seated, we follow the same silent reading and invited checkout procedure that we use for ELA classes.

Math teachers love these lessons so much that they come to me early in the school year to see when we can schedule them into the library. It also whets their interest in collaborating on other math-related lessons in the library. Students love these lessons, too. Sixth graders are always puzzled about why they’re in the library with a math class…most have never done that before. What amazes me is how many comment afterward that now they understand how all those numbers work, which is, of course, the whole point of teaching Dewey numbers to our students.


You may be wondering why I deliberately use the phrase Dewey numbers—and Dewey books. I identify areas of the library by what’s on the spine labels of the books; since there’s a Dewey number on the spine labels, it’s the Dewey area of the library.

My decision to begin doing this came during the aforementioned (incredibly boring) orientation: I was explaining that we separate fiction books from the 800s into their own area of the library, but the ‘non-fiction’ area still had some fictional books, such as aliens and fairy tales. I thought, “Why am I making this so confusing to students? If I just call them Dewey-number books I’ll alleviate confusion and questions!” So from then on, that’s what I called them.

Now I clarify with students that ‘non-fiction’ is about the content of a book, not it’s location. If you take anything from this blog post, I hope it’s the terms ‘Dewey area’ and ‘Dewey-number books’ instead of ‘nonfiction.’ Our kids deserve common sense.

line of books laying down

If the slide images above have sparked your interest, you can find my Dewey Lessons in my No Sweat Library store on TeachersPayTeachers, as well as my colorful Dewey Subject Signs & Shelf Labels.

Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic and relevant by inviting 6g Math classes to review decimal place values and sequencing! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 6g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic & relevant by inviting 7g Math classes to review adding & subtracting decimal numbers! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 7g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! No Sweat Library Dewey Subject Signs & Shelf Labels - Make it easier for students to find a Dewey book in your school library with these colorful, pictorial signs and shelf labels. They're just what you need for your middle school or elementary library!

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How to Support Social Studies Content Reading in the School Library

School Librarians can increase student achievement in Social Studies by enhancing background knowledge with content area reading. Learn how to regroup your existing collection into Special Collections for 6g World Cultures, 7g State History, and 8g United States History. | No Sweat LibrarySchool Librarians work hard to promote reading, especially of fiction books (as in organizing fiction by Subjects), to support the English Language Arts curriculum.

However, we know that students learn and retain more when they have rich content-area background knowledge, so it makes sense that we work just as hard to encourage students to read curriculum-related books in support of other content areas.

When Kathy Cunningham, a fellow district librarian at Blalack Middle School in Carrollton Texas, showed me how she had grouped books to support the Social Studies curriculum, I was inspired to do the same. Our school library now has three Special Collections for Middle School Social Studies that contain fiction and non-fiction books:

  • Globetrekkers for 6th grade World Cultures
  • Totally Texas for 7th grade Texas State History
  • Read America for 8th grade U.S. History through Reconstruction.

To make it easy for students to find them and for library aides to shelve them, I added unique identifier labels below the spine labels, then located them so they were distinct from other books, yet still part of the main library collection. Follow along as I explain how I chose books and created our Special Social Studies Collections.

GLOBETREKKERS – 6g World Cultures

To identify fiction books I ran reports by Subject for each continent and its countries. For nonfiction, I pulled Dewey books off the 000-999 shelves that related to countries and cultures. I didn’t include any folktales because 6g ELA teachers do a multicultural folktale unit, nor did I include country “facts” books from the 900s, but I did pull any cultural and natural wonders titles found there.

Our students study countries by continent, so I created and attached a colorful continent label under the spine label. (My friend used Demco’s color-striped circles mounted horizontally to simulate a flag.) To make them even more distinct from the regular collection, I also added a Demco transparent color-tinted circle on the spine label—as a “globe”—using pink for fiction and teal for nonfiction.

Global Book Labels: Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Australia & Oceania, and Antarctica.

The Continents book labels

I located the GlobeTrekker collection on recently installed shelving near the door to the 6g hallway. It was especially gratifying for me to see kids checking out newly labeled cultural books from the 300s, art books from the 700s, and natural wonders from the 900s that were “invisible” in their original locations. Kids told me how much they liked all the “new” books I’d gotten for them!Help Students Achieve in Social Studies with Special Library Collections - School Librarians know that increased content knowledge means higher achievement in that subject. Give students a boost in social studies by creating special grade-level collections of fiction & nonfiction social studies topical books! Here's how I did it. #NoSweatLibrary

With so many 900 cultural books moved to the GlobeTrekker section, I had room to place all the non-U.S. country books together in a single aisle, that is, I moved the 980s & 990s to the end of the 972s. I placed a colorful sign atop each segment of shelves to clearly identify the Continent and added shelf labels to identify the country numbers. The kids don’t notice the jump in numbers from 972 to 980 (I did put a sign there to indicate that all 973 U.S. books are in the next aisle.), but browsing for country books in a single aisle is so much easier that students are now reading them more.

TOTALLY TEXAS – 7g State History

To increase the 976.4 Texas Dewey section, I added Texas-related books from 000s-800s, including Texas folktales, as well as some short Texas biographies. (I did change books on Texas cultures, folklore, food, & music to Texas Dewey numbers.) As explained above, moving 980-999 books to the 900-972 aisle opened up extra shelves after 976.4 so there was plenty of room to add the additional 976.4 Texas History books.

Book Label "Totally Texas"Most of the Texas Dewey books had already gotten a Texas outline label under the spine label to differentiate them within the larger Dewey collection, and the Texas Fiction books—stories that take place in or deal with Texas—had gotten the outline label and a dark green color-tinted label protector on top of the spine label when the fiction area was reorganized into Subjects. So I just added a transparent green star—for the “Lone Star State”—on the Dewey book spine labels.

Our Fiction area begins right across the aisle from the Dewey 900s, so I moved Texas Fiction to shelves across the aisle from 976.4, thus bridging Texas Dewey & Texas Fiction to make the end of that aisle truly Totally Texas. Seventh graders quickly discovered the new section, and just like with 6g, the 7g kids were checking out books they’d never noticed before!

Middle schools in Texas don’t study individual states (except Texas) and there was little interest in them, so all non-Texas state books were donated to one of our elementary feeder schools. There are now no 974-976.3 nor 976.5-979. Since current states info can be found from an online subscription service, the loss is negligible. Removing those books opened up space for an expanded 973 U.S. History section.

READ AMERICA – 8g U.S. History

When I got rid of the individual state books, I did keep those that were topical to overall U.S. History and changed their call numbers to a 973 number. All the U.S. History books are now together by geography or by historical period.

  • Books about natural wonders, historical landmarks, and national or state parks were changed to 973.091, the DDC number for geographical treatment.
  • Books about the 13 original colonies became 973.2 Colonial America with their 2-letter State Postal Code instead of author letters.
  • Books about significant U.S. events, like westward expansion and September 11 were changed to their historical time period in 973.2-973.9.

Historical American fiction book sticker.Our Fiction books for the time periods studied in 8g U.S. History had already been labeled with an Historical America sticker, but I wanted to “bridge” them as I had with the Texas fiction and nonfiction. They were moved to shelves next to Texas Fiction and now the Historical America fiction books are across the aisle from the 973 U.S. History Dewey books.

To really promote the Read America and Totally Texas Social Studies Special Collections, I hung a huge U.S. map on the wall at the end of the aisle, and created signage and shelf labels to identify our new “American History & Historical Fiction” aisle. Students are checking out more of these books than ever before!


Entice students to read Social Studies Fiction and Nonfiction books and get better grades in their classes. Customized reading promotion for 3 common Middle School courses: World Cultures/Geography, State History, and U.S. History. | No Sweat LibraryTo promote the reading of GlobeTrekkers, Totally Texas, and Read America, I created special bookmarks for student comments while reading, along with Reading Records for students to paste into their Interactive Notebooks to record books read. When students reach their book reading goal—which varies by grade level—they receive a Social Studies coupon to add 5 points to any Social Studies quiz…a reward suggested by the Social Studies teachers.

I’ve packaged these up for you in No Sweat Library, my TeachersPayTeachers store.
Look them over!

The real pièce de résistance was when the Social Studies teachers asked to have a special “orientation” for the new Social Studies Special Collections! Here’s a synthesized slide presentation I gave to introduce each grade level’s Social Studies classes to their Special Collections.


Because both fiction and nonfiction books for the GlobeTrekkers collection were pulled from so many different Dewey numbers and fiction subjects, I did change their Home Location in the automation system to Global, which my colleague had created for her special collection. Otherwise, except for the few Dewey number changes to Texas books and some 973s, the beauty of this process has been simply adding classification labels and transparent color-tinted label overlays—no call number or spine label changes!

As with my reorganization of the Fiction area into Subjects (genres), should the next librarian want to eliminate these special collections, removing the labels is pretty much all that’s needed.

So, School Librarians: surprise your Social Studies teachers and students with Special Collections to support their subject-area content. Students will increase their background knowledge and you will garner praise for contributing to increased student achievement!

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article

Updated from 2015.
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