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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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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