Many School Librarians have reorganized the Fiction section of the library into topical categories so students can more easily find what they like to read. Whether you call them Fiction Subjects (as I do) or genres (as do others), it is a huge boost to student reading satisfaction and to our book circulation. That success prompts us to look at other areas to make our school library more user-friendly.
The ABC order of Biography by the last name of the person written about, much like the ABC order of Fiction by author’s last name, works fine if you know exactly who you’re looking for, but if you want someone in a particular profession—like an artist or scientist or athlete or world leader—it’s not very useful.
While modern school libraries have access to online subscription services like encyclopedias and biography databases that provide search by subject, many teachers still like students to get information from a book, especially at middle and elementary levels. If subject area teachers regularly assign students a biography project, it makes sense to reorganize the Biography area into topical categories to be more student-friendly and to meet our curricular needs.
PLANNING BIOGRAPHY RE-ORGANIZATION
To be sure our reorganization effort is truly helpful, we need to first find out which content-area teachers give a biography assignment. This, of course, is practical for any form of organization, but since our whole purpose is to support curriculum, we need to know which disciplines, or fields of study, our teachers want students to explore.
For example, our 6th grade math teachers assign a biography project on mathematicians, while science teachers at one grade level assign scientists, and at another grade level they specify inventors. Our Texas History teachers assign a project on Texas explorers, while an English Language Arts teacher assigns her G/T classes a project on Renaissance figures in the above topics, along with politics, religion, and some of the arts.
It may occur to you, as it did to me the first time I began pulling books for these assignments, that a topical organization would make this task much easier for us—and for students. Also, it would make it much easier to figure out what we need to purchase to make our collection better. In that vein, my ELL teacher gives newcomers a biography project on U.S. presidents, so I acquired an easy-reader collection of them just for her.
Curricular support is paramount, but it’s also important to support student interests by making it easy to find the people they like to read about. My middle school boys love reading about athletes and other sports figures, whereas girls tend to prefer singers, musicians, and other performing artists. However, I discovered many of them prefer shorter books for the popular figures of the day, whereas teachers prefer longer books for projects, so planning a biography reorganization may require more than just categorizing the current collection.
In fact, after several students asked where the sports and arts biographies were, I chose to put all biography books with 100 or fewer pages into the Dewey section with the number of the subject and -092 after it. This way I provide a large collection of biography “favorites” right where students are looking for them and make the Biography area more suitable for project assignments. The added advantage is that I can afford to more regularly weed & replace these shorter, less expensive popular biographies with the current icons to keep students happy.
CHOOSING BIOGRAPHY CATEGORIES
After surveying teachers and students—and browsing our biography books—we can probably find 10-12 different disciplines/fields of study for dividing up the books. Here are some choices that may help you with reorganizing your biography collection:
- Activists & Reformers
- Religious Leaders & Philosophers
- Politicians & World Leaders
- Scientists & Mathematicians (I put these together since many are both)
- Inventors & Technology Innovators
- Business Leaders
- Artists: Painters, Sculptors, Architects, Graphic Designers
- Performers: Musicians, Singers, Actors, Dancers
- Athletes & Sports Figures
- Literary Figures: Writers, Poets, Dramatists
- Explorers & Pioneers
- Unique Notables (for those that don’t fit the above categories)
You may have noticed that these topical divisions are in similar order to Dewey Subjects, so they are excellent choices for reorganizing your Collected Biographies, too. Using Dewey numbers 920-928 is actually “Option A” in the DDC Handbook, and when I reorganized my 920s this way, circulation of these books significantly increased.
As with Fiction, I refer to these divisions as “Subjects” to reinforce with students how to search in the online catalog. And, instead of the librarian-specific terms disciplines/fields of study, I explain to students that the Subjects are the careers or “professions” of the people the books are about. This dual explanation is well received and understood by middle schoolers.
LABELING BIOGRAPHY SUBJECTS/PROFESSIONS
Once we’ve chosen our different biography subjects, we want to begin identifying books in order to organize them on the shelves. It would be very confusing to color code spine labels with transparent overlays if we do that for fiction books, and unlike spine labels for fiction subjects, it’s difficult to find commercial spine labels for biography subjects (although Demco does have a set of 6 for inventors, sports, and the various arts).
We might consider using spine labels for Dewey subjects, which are commercially available and few school librarians put those on Dewey books. There may be signage coordinated with those labels, different from what we already use in our Dewey area.
To save money, we could create simple text labels and coordinated signs using common computer applications. Or, with a bit more time and creativity, we can devise our own biography profession spine labels, signs, & shelf labels, customized for our collection. There are free icon images online that serve that purpose, as well as sticker templates for the spine and shelf labels.
Whichever identifying method we choose, once the books are back on the shelves, we can let teachers and students know that the biography area now has a more welcoming organization system. Even if there is no current assignment, students will enjoy browsing the new layout and checking out books they never before realized we had!
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Need ideas for Biography projects? Stay tuned…I’m working on some great ones!