Organize Your School Library’s Fiction Books by Subjects

Organize Your School Library's Fiction Books by Subjects - Reorganizing fiction books into subject groups (genre-izing) can be a wise professional decision that benefits our students and promotes independent reading. Here's how to do it without changing spine labels or Call Numbers! #NoSweatLibraryReorganizing the school library’s fiction by Subjects—or what some call genres—has been a hot topic among School Librarians for several years.

Some School Librarians question why we should change the way we’ve always done things—and reorganizing fiction may not work for every school—but we cannot let weak rationale stand in the way of a wise professional decision that can increase reading for our students and increase circulation in our School Library.

Here’s why and how this School Librarian decided to organize our Fiction book area by Subjects.


The most often used argument against reorganizing fiction books into Subjects is that it will hinder a student’s ability to locate books in other libraries. This claim doesn’t stand up:

  • Nearly all academic libraries use Library of Congress organization, and thousands of college students who come from Dewey-organized libraries are still able to locate the books they need. They don’t have to know the LOC system; they know they just need to use an item identifier—the “Call Number”—and follow the signage to where the Call Number is located!
  • Retail bookstores use BISAC, a subject-based system, and millions of people don’t have any trouble finding what they need because they can follow the signage.
  • Many public libraries are now re-organizing their fiction collections, to the approval of both young folks and adults. Again, they use signage to guide patrons to what they need.

Signage is the key in ANY library for finding materials, and signage can help our students locate the different Subjects in Fiction. Another common argument against re-organizing fiction is that it doesn’t follow professional standards. This doesn’t stand up either:

  • Since the late 1800s, the Dewey Decimal System has provided a universal organizing structure for libraries, yet today it’s far different than it was 140 years ago…or even 4 years ago! Every year OCLC issues changes in DDC to collocate like disciplinary materials; some of these are massive changes, like moving all Pets from Science’s 590 Animals into Applied Science’s 636 Animal Husbandry. The DDC is not carved in stone…and we shouldn’t be either!
  • School Librarians need to remember that Literature is a Subject in Dewey Decimal Classification. What we call “fiction” is actually 813 American Fiction in English (and 823 for British fiction). At some point in time we librarians just replaced the Dewey number with FIC and separated these books from other numbered Dewey books. If we went strictly by DDC, we shouldn’t have a separate fiction section at all!

For me, the biggest counter to reorganizing criticism is that we are here to serve the needs of students. Many students prefer certain kinds of stories and we can make it easier for them to find them. Since we regularly teach Dewey as “subjects”, it isn’t a stretch for kids to associate numbered “Subjects” in the Dewey section with “Subjects” in the Fiction area: Science, History, Folktales > > Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy.

Why I use “Subject” instead of “genre
Many folks refer to “genre” when speaking of Fiction stories, but technically in English Language Arts, genres are types of literature—narrative, expository, poetry, and drama—rather than the different kinds of fiction stories. I choose the term “Fiction Subjects” for just this reason: to avoid confusing students because our primary goal is to support curriculum.

Finally, being able to use a library isn’t radically affected by a different organization method, as long as students are taught properly about identifiers and locations. We can only know what works for our students if we experiment; if it doesn’t work, we can always go back.


Organize Your Library Fiction to Align with Student Interests - Increase student reading by reorganizing fiction books into subject groups. Here's how to do it without changing spine labels or Call Numbers! #NoSweatLibraryIn my Library, I had some books with Demco Subject picture labels under the spine label, so I decided to continue using colorful Subject labels to identify the Subjects. The Subjects I chose are Adventure, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Humor, Mystery, Realistic Fiction, Romance, Scary, Science Fiction, and Sports. I use Scary instead of Horror because the Scary label is much brighter…and kids always ask for “Scary” books anyway.

I did NOT want to redo spine labels and also be able to easily differentiate different Subject books. Nancy Limmer, West Memorial Junior High Librarian in Katy TX, gave me the ideal solution: use Demco transparent color label covers, since the only change to the regular spine label is putting a color label over it (and you can just peel them off if you decide to go back to straight alpha order).

I color-coordinate the transparent labels with picture labels—for Demco labels: light green for Historical Fiction, light blue for Romance, dark blue for Adventure, red for Scary, pink for Fantasy, purple for Science Fiction, orange for Sports, yellow for Mystery, and tan for Humor. I love explaining to students that “Blo-o-o-dy Red” is for Scary and that “Peanut Butter” is for Humor “because PB stuck to the roof of your mouth is funny.”

I wanted to keep the library open for classes and also continue circulating books. I devised a process that allowed me to identify & label Subjects on however many books I wanted, whenever I had time available, for however many weeks it took to get them all done, then make the big changes the same way.

Identify Titles by Subject

image of CIP data for The Hobbit with Subject Fantasy circled

Example CIP Subject

All library automation systems have different types of reports, one of which will compile books based on the Subject field in the MARC record (my report was called Bibliographies by Subject). That MARC record ‘Subject’ is the same as the ‘Subject’ found in Cataloging in Publication (CIP) data on a book’s copyright page—yet another reason to use the term “Subject” instead of genre. The report can sort by Call Number to make it easy to locate books on the shelves.

I ran reports for common Subjects:

  • mystery (also mystery & detective stories)
  • science fiction
  • fantasy
  • adventure (also adventure & adventurers)
  • humor (also humorous stories)
  • historical fiction
    and used more creative terms for difficult Subjects:
  • For romance in a middle school library, I used dating and relationships.
  • For Scary, I did ‘horror’ and some of its alternatives, such as supernatural, paranormal, good & evil.
  • For sports I ran lists of specific sports. In the end I expanded my Sports and Humor sections by pulling relevant books from other Subject groups.
  • The term “time travel” produced mixed results, and I decided to put these books into Fantasy or Science Fiction depending whether the travel was magical or machine.

Label Books with Subject Sticker & Color Label Cover

Help Students Find Fiction Subjects with Book Labels, Signs, & Shelf Labels - School Librarians can use this color-coordinated package of bookcase signs, shelf labels, and book spine labels to help students identify 16 common Fiction Subjects in your Fiction area. Visit my TPT store to learn more and buy now! #NoSweatLibraryWhenever I shelved books or had some extra time, I picked one Subject at a time to label books, going down the shelves and adding stickers & transparent labels, then crossing them off the bibliography list. I did have to go through the lists more than once to pick up returned books, but this method allowed me to continue circulating books throughout the semester. By the middle of December I was done identifying and labeling, and it was pretty cool to walk down the aisles and see such colorful shelves.

(If you don’t want to physically move books into separate sections, you can stop here.)

Change Shelf Locations in the Catalog

Any library automation system has a field that changes to show when a book is ‘checked out’my particular system calls it Home Location. Instead of the default ‘on the shelf’, I wanted it to show the Fiction Subject so students could see that as the book’s location when doing a search. Our automation specialist had already added several Subjects I needed, and he willingly added others to include all my Subjects.

During final exam week in December when I didn’t have students checking out, I pulled books of one Subject at a time onto a cart and used the Global change feature to change the Home Location for the entire cart. I returned the books to their alphabetical shelf as a group, since I’d be pulling them again after winter break to move to their new location. It took only 2 days to change the Home Location for all 8,000+ books in our Fiction area.

Determine Number of Shelves for each Subject

Map of Fiction Subject Layout of LibraryIn order to determine the number of shelves I’d use with each subject, I ran a report to show the total number of books for each Subjectmine is called “Count Items by Home Location”. Over winter break, I created a map of my shelving and, allowing about 25 books/shelf, soon had a layout I liked, and a plan to expeditiously move books.

The first 3 days back at school in January I pulled & moved books, and created new signage to coordinate with the colors of the Subject labels. By Thursday the Language Arts classes began coming in for checkout to see my new and improved Fiction section!

Looking back, the major benefit of this method is no changes to the book’s Call Number, either in the automation system or on the spine label. Changing Home Location was quick with the global batch feature, and it would be just as easy to change back to shelving fiction books alphabetically. The benefit of the process is that I kept the library open for the entire time, taking advantage of end of and beginning of semester closed days to complete larger tasks.


Organizing by Subjects has been a big hit with students—EVERYONE can find a book! I got so excited I ordered new Demco bookends and carts, color-coordinated with label colors, to make it easier to shelve books! I do love Demco!

Science Fiction section with color-coded stickers, labels, bookends & bookcart

Science Fiction section with color-coded stickers, labels, bookends & bookcart

a cart of new books with Subject stickers & colorful label covers

a cart of new books with Subject stickers & color label covers

Preparing new book orders is very easy. I create a separate purchasing list for each Subject, then print them out before I combine them into the final order. When new books arrive, I use these lists to organize new books on carts, then apply the stickers and label covers.

For more information about the Subjects I used for my reorganization and how you can decide which ones to use, read my blog post: Library Terminology for Fiction Stories.

line of books laying down

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