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 area of their 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), that reorganization is a huge boost to student reading satisfaction and to our book circulation—a success that prompts us to look at other areas we can 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 just want anyone in a particular profession—like an artist or scientist or athlete or world leader—it’s not very useful.

While most school libraries can access online subscription services like encyclopedias and biography databases, many teachers still like students to get information from a book, especially at middle and elementary levels. If your content-area teachers regularly assign students a biography project, then reorganizing the Biography area into topical categories makes it more relevant to curricular needs and easier for students to find what they need.


Would reorganizing the Biography area be worth the effort? Which content-area teachers give a biography assignment with books? Since our school library’s whole purpose is to support curriculum, we first find out which occupations our teachers want students to explore.

For example, our 6th grade math teachers assign a mathematician biography project, science teachers at one grade level assign scientists, at another grade level they specify inventors. Texas History teachers assign a Texas explorers project, and an ELA teacher assigns her G/T classes a Renaissance biography project on the above topics, along with politics, religion, and the arts.

The first time I had to gather books for those assignments, I thought a topical organization would make that task much easier. It would also be it easier to determine gaps and what purchases would make the Biography collection better. Accordingly, when our ELL teacher wanted newcomers to do a biography project on all the U.S. presidents, I purchased a complete easy-reader collection of them which we used for years—and they were useful, too, with special ed students.

Curricular support is paramount, but it’s also important to support student reading with books on the people they like. And while teachers prefer longer books for student projects, most students prefer to read shorter books about the popular figures of the day. Middle school boys especially love sports figures, whereas girls prefer singers, musicians, performing artists.

Early on, students would ask me where sports and arts biographies were, so even without topical reorganization, I moved all biography books with fewer than 100 pages into the Dewey section, with the DDC number and -092 as the new call numbers. We now had a large collection of “favorite biographies” where students could easily find them, and the Biography area retained the longer books for project assignments. Advantageously, I can weed the shorter, less expensive popular books more frequently and replace them with the current idols to keep students happy.


After surveying teachers and students—and browsing the biography books—you can decide on several different careers/professions for dividing up the books. Here are my choices that may help you with reorganizing your biography collection:

  • School Librarians can reorganize their Biography collection into topical groups to boost student reading and make assigned projects easier to complete. Talk to teachers, see what students are reading, and browse the books to decide what categories will work best in your school library. | No Sweat LibraryActivists & Reformers
  • Religious Leaders & Philosophers
  • Politicians & World Leaders
  • The Military: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard
  • Scientists & Mathematicians
  • 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 notice the order of these topical divisions is similar to Dewey Subjects, which students already recognize, and that makes them excellent choices to reorganize Collected Biographies, too. There actually is an “Option A” in the DDC Handbook for this—Dewey numbers 920-928—so I reorganized the 920s this way, and circulation of these books skyrocketed!

As with Fiction, I refer to these topical categories as “Subjects” to reinforce with students how to search in the online catalog, and I introduce these Biography Subjects as the careers or “professions” of the people the books are about. This explanation is well received and understood by middle schoolers.


Once we’ve chosen the biography subjects, decide how to identify them on the books and group them on the shelves. Unlike the numerous commercial labels for fiction subjects, and even for Dewey, there aren’t classification labels for different biography subjects (although Demco does have a set of 6 for inventors, sports, and the various arts).

Students and teachers will thank you when you reorganize biographies into topical Subjects that align with curricular assignments and student reading interests, and then add these No Sweat Library Biography Signs, Shelf and Spine Labels. | No Sweat LibrarySome folks can create simple text labels and coordinated signs, but I like very visual signage that catches the eyes of students and leaves a strong impression. Using free templates for various sized office supply sticky labels, I create spine labels and shelf labels, and make bookcase signs with a slide presentation app. You may want to save yourself time and get my Biography Signs, Shelf Labels, & Spine Labels, from No Sweat Library, my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Once the labeling is done and the books grouped into their professions, 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!

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

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

  1. I am also trying to access the printable biography labels and it is not working. I subscribed and used the link, but to no avail.

  2. I absolutely love your biography categories! I joined the email group but am having trouble finding the area to download the PDF sample.

    • Thank you for your comment, Kelli, and for joining our e-Group. You should have received the link in the acknowledgement email you received from If you are still having trouble, please email me there and I will help.

  3. 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!
      (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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