How to Create a Relevant, Easy-To-Use Biography Area in the School Library

The school library Biography area can become more student-friendly and inviting by re-organizing it into topical, curriculum-related Subjects, as many School Librarians have done with their Fiction area. Read on for a good plan of action! | No Sweat LibraryMany 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

12 Useful Categories to Re-organize Biographies - Dividing the school library Biography collection into topical groups can boost student reading and make assigned projects easier to complete. Here are the 12 categories that work for my middle school library. | No Sweat LibraryAfter 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).

No Sweat Library Biography Signs, Shelf Labels, and Spine Labels - Make your school library Biography section more usable for students and teachers by reorganizing it into these 12 topical Subjects, easily aligned with curricular assignments and with student reading interests. | No Sweat LibraryWe 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!

Biography Spine Labels
Have I got a deal for you! By joining my E-mail Group, you gain access to the exclusive e-Group Library which has a PDF sample sheet of these Biography Book Spine Labels for you to download, print, and try out with your students!

Need ideas for Biography projects? Stay tuned…I’m working on some great ones!

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article

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2 thoughts on “How to Create a Relevant, Easy-To-Use Biography Area in the School Library

  1. Dear Christa,
    I am so glad I found your blog! Every time I read a post or need ideas for bringing the school library into the 21st century, I am dazzled by your insight, clarity, and style.
    I have especially enjoyed the 5 literacies series and everything related to the genrification process. It is amazing how I was specifically mulling over how I would organize a biography section a couple of days ago and now – your latest post is a roadmap into the thinking and processes needed to do just that!
    I do have one question for you, though. As each library is being set up to meet the specific needs of the school community it supports, we seem to be losing a little uniformity and ease of use. recently, I was filling in for the last 2 months in an Elementary school library that had been set up by genre. I loved it – the students were easily able to find what they were looking for and it had an overall pleasing aesthetic too. However, as someone coming in to cover an already established set-up, I didn’t know where to find anything! It took a good couple of weeks for me to be able to find my way around and even then, there were still things I didn’t know where to find. So while I absolutely support this way of setting things up, it was a much steeper learning curve for me than a regular library set up would have been. And, it won’t even transfer to another such library because then that environment will be set up differently again.
    Do you think when we are organizing in this way that it might be a good idea to build a floorplan or map at the same time for subs or volunteers? Or do you have another suggestion you think would work even better?
    Anyway, thank you so much for your thoughtful and helpful site. I am truly grateful for your expertise. <3

    • Thank you, Sarah-Beth, for your wonderful comment and compliments. I am so glad my blog is helping you.

      Regarding transfer to another library, I hear you. I believe the main problem may be with the signage. If everything is clearly marked, it shouldn’t be difficult for someone to find exactly what they are looking for, which is why I spend so much time making good signage for the school library. Also, the online catalog needs to clearly indicate where items can be found, and I always teach students to use that if they can’t find something by browsing.

      I do, however, agree that a map of the library is very helpful. I do actually include one in my volunteer and substitute package, but it occurs to me that having a map inside a library informational brochure would be a grand idea, and I’m going to make a sample one for my Looking Backward readers!

      Thanks again for your delightful response…you made my day!
      BrP
      (PS: Christa McAuliffe was the teacher astronaut who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986. I’m Barbara: I guess I need to add that by my pic!)

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