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.


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.


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.


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!

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How to Make a Make-Up Library Research Assignment Unique

How to Make a Make-Up Library Research Assignment Unique - When a performing arts student came into the School Library to “make up” for a missed performance, this School Librarian turned boring into a unique alternative "performance." Now I always ask 3 key questions and use unconventional resources and tools for make-ups! #NoSweatLibraryWe all get them…students who show up in the School Library with a sheet of paper assigning a research project to “make up” for something they didn’t do, so they don’t fail the class. This can be the worst kind of student library visit—the student regards this as a punishment and because there’s been no collaboration with the teacher, we may not have the resources for the assigned project.

Instead of being annoyed, we need to view these incidental research assignments as wonderful opportunities to step beyond the boundaries of curriculum, to try something different, and to use resources that are rarely used.


My first incidental assignments came from performance arts classes—Band, Choir, and Orchestra—because students missed a scheduled performance. The teachers all used the same make-up assignment—a 3-page biography research paper—differing only in the list of composers or performers. When faced with this situation, I asked myself 3 questions:

  1. How can I motivate this student so they want to do the project?
  2. How can I adapt the assignment for the resources I have?
  3. How can I transform the product and still satisfy the teacher?

How a School Librarian Can Change an Incidental Assignment - What any School Librarian would consider a real inconvenience can become one of our best library research activities! Just ask these 3 questions to change a make-up assignment for the better. #NoSweatLibrary

Often these students miss a performance through no fault of their own, so they’re not keen to write a research paper. To motivate them I suggest using alternate resources to gather information and, replace their missed performance with a unique product:

Produce a short recorded performance as a radio or TV “host” discussing their artist.

None of my performance arts students turned down this suggestion, and after running the idea by teachers, they loved the idea, too, especially since it aligns with 3 National Core Arts Standards for Music:

  • MU.Performing4.1.6: Apply teacher-provided criteria for selecting music to perform for a specific purpose and/or context, and explain why each was chosen.
  • MU.Pr4.1.7: Apply collaboratively-developed criteria for selecting music of contrasting styles for a program with a specific purpose and/or context and, after discussion, identify expressive qualities, technical challenges, and reasons for choices.
  • MU.Pr4.1.8: Apply personally-developed criteria for selecting music of contrasting styles for a program with a specific purpose and/or context and explain expressive qualities, technical challenges, and reasons for choices.

My question technique is so successful that I use the same process when any student walks in with an incidental research assignment that lacks a WOW factor.


Topical non-traditional resources that are rarely used are perfect for an incidental research assignment. The student hasn’t seen them before, and they’re more engaging than an encyclopedia for research. These little-used resources include:

  • videos of people, places, performances, and events like cultural festivals
  • music cassettes and CDs by various composers and performing groups
  • graphics and animation on computer CDs or websites
  • kits of pamphlets, booklets, and brochures
  • primary sources as print copies or online.

Remember those “reference interviews” we practiced in library school? They are valuable for finding out what interests the student about the particular class, so we can determine which of our resources will fit both student and subject. I grab 2 or 3 resources related to the assignment’s theme & the student’s interests, and the student previews them. They pick a person or performance, and we gather additional print and non-print informational sources about their choice. I use the assignment sheet to ascertain the teacher’s content standards and research criteria, so I can give the student a note-taking learning log or graphic organizer that aligns with the requirements.

Turn a Boring Biography Project Into an Exciting Podcast Interview - Biography assignments can be so boring. School Librarians can turn blah into exciting by asking 3 key questions and using some unconventional resources and tools! #NoSweatLibraryMy performing arts students become immersed in this make-up assignment and are excited to produce a unique “alternative” performance. The student writes a script for their talk radio show, giving biographical information, the person’s place in history, and why they chose them.

Once the script is polished and the sample performances are readied, the student records their own “performance” interlaced with examples of the music. Both script and recording are turned in for a grade. (We originally used audio- or video-cassettes but now use digital tools such as Audacity or MovieMaker.)


Impressed with the alternate performance-based product, Band, Choir, and Orchestra teachers adopted this redesigned project for all performance make-up assignments. They send their students to the library with instructions to “do whatever Ms. P tells you!” I keep track of musical performances on my library calendar so I know when to expect students for a make-up assignment.

So, what are some of the “performance analyses” students have done?

  • Composers ranging from Beethoven to the Beatles.
  • Singers and musicians from Scott Joplin to Janis Joplin, including greats like Billy Holiday and Glenn Miller, and pop icons like Frank Sinatra and hip-hop trendsetters.
  • Music from the medieval period and the Texas Scarborough Faire Renaissance festival to Revolutionary War and Civil War songs to cultural festivals from 4 continents.
  • Old folk instruments to homemade street drumming to electronically produced tunes.

We’ve used so many—what I thought were obsolete—audio/video/digital items that I actually add resources for more variety. I set up an audio station in our existing Video Production Lab so we have a place for producing audio projects, which I now add as podcasts on our library website.

What any school librarian could have considered a real pain has become one of my best library research activities. It turned what was a discouraging prospect into a meaningful learning experience for performing arts students. And as word spread, other teachers began to ask me to modify their make-up assignments for the better.

That’s some mighty powerful PR for the School Library!

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