School Library Terminology for Organizing Fiction Stories

Library Terminology for Fiction Stories - Students refer to classes by "subject," we tell students to search for books "By Subject," and we use "Subject" to explain the Dewey Decimal System. Let's make our school library consistent and kid-friendly by using the term "Subject" for Fiction, too! #NoSweatLibraryA School Librarian wanting to reorganize her school library’s Fiction area may ask this question before embarking on such an endeavor:

“Is there a common standard or system to organize Fiction books in the school library?”

Actually, librarians do have a standardized terminology for books: Subject Headings.

As I learned in my cataloging class (Take it even if it’s not required—you won’t regret it!) part of the MARC record for a book is the Subject Heading. All library books have at least one Subject in the MARC record which comes from one of the standard vocabularies: Library of Congress Subject Headings or SEARS Subject Headings. Many books have multiple Subjects from one of those sources.

You can usually see the LCSH or SSH Subjects for a book’s MARC record by looking on the book’s copyright page at the LOC Cataloging-In-Publication data (CIP). In the ‘Subject’ lines are the most common terms for fiction stories: adventure, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, romance, and horror.

image of CIP data for The Hobbit with Subject Fantasy circled

Example CIP Subject

Library vendors, like Demco or The Library Store, sell Subject Classification labels for fiction books, and they use the same terms as the MARC Subject Headings. Even if a librarian does not separate the fiction collection into Subject groups, many still buy and use these stickers to help students choose a book that appeals to them.


I do NOT use the term genre for my Fiction groupings, because I don’t want to confuse students:

  1. Our Online Book Catalogs use Subject Search which searches that Subject field of the MARC record. Using the words “Fiction Subjects” to identify our Fiction groupings clearly relays to students the terms to use and how to search for a particular kind of fiction story.
  2. Students use the term Subject for their school classes, and we use the familiar term Subject for the 10 Dewey Classes—Science, History, Literature, Languages. Students grasp Subjects as a mechanism for representing specific groupings, whether in school, or in Dewey, or in Fiction.

    NOTE: Dewey actually does use the term Subject. It’s third in the hierarchy of groupings for the number just left of the decimal: Class, Division, Subject. So, in the Dewey number for Literature, the Subject number is the 3 in 813 American Fiction in English. DDC does use the term genre for the decimal numbers after 813. they aren’t listed in DDC Abridged 14.

    Since I use Subject for fiction stories, students understand that Fiction is organized into Subjects just like Dewey books.  I associate the Dewey Subject of Science with the Subject of Science Fiction and the Dewey Subject of History with the Subject of Historical Fiction. Students need this consistency in the library.

  3. In English Language Arts and library cataloging the term genre is types (or forms) of literature—narrative, expository, poetry, drama—not kind of fiction story. I tried, as some folks do, using the term subgenres, but it was even more confusing for kids to differentiate kinds of stories from types of literature. Students already have so much vocabulary to learn that we can at least make it easier for them by consistently using the term Subject!

Since I carefully avoid using the term genre for books in the Fiction area,
ELA teachers appreciate that I don’t confuse what they are teaching students!


Are There Standardized Terms For Fiction Stories? - If you're a School Librarian wondering about the topics or "genres" of Fiction books, read this to learn the right terminology used to identify the subject of fiction books. #NoSweatLibrarySome fiction books no longer contain CIP data on the copyright page, so the Subject Heading may not be readily available. To aid librarians who wish to organize their school library’s fiction books by Subject, here’s a list of some common LOC Subjects used for fiction literature.

  • Adventure stories OR Adventure and adventurers OR Survival fiction OR Plot-your-own-stories
  • Families fiction OR Domestic fiction
  • Fantasy fiction OR Heroic fantasy
  • Historical fiction
  • Horror fiction OR Horror stories OR Scary stories OR Ghost stories OR Occult fiction OR Occult stories OR Paranormal fiction OR Supernatural fiction
  • Humor OR Humorous stories
  • Mystery and detective stories OR Detective and mystery stories OR Suspense fiction OR Thrillers OR Spy stories OR Code and cipher stories
  • Outdoor life fiction OR Nature stories
  • Paranormal Romance
  • Romance fiction OR Love stories OR Dating (Social customs) fiction OR Coming of age stories OR Social life and customs fiction
  • Schools fiction OR High schools fiction OR Middle schools juvenile fiction
  • Science fiction OR Future life fiction OR Alternative histories fiction OR Cyberpunk fiction OR Steampunk fiction OR Life on other planets fiction
  • Sports stories
  • Stories-in-rhyme
  • Urban fiction OR Street life fiction OR City or town life fiction OR Suburban life fiction
  • War fiction OR War stories
  • Western fiction OR Western stories
  • Young adult fiction


Minimize the time it takes students to find the kind of story they want to read: identify Fiction books by Subject. This package includes colorful bookcase signs, shelf labels, and book spine label templates for 16 common Fiction Subjects (genres). #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #fiction #genres #librarysignageI believe it’s our job as School Librarians to make our libraries as “kid-friendly” as possible. Since I began to use the term “Fiction Subjects, it’s made a huge difference for my middle school students in understanding how to search for and locate the kinds of books—Fiction or Dewey—that they want to read.

Some librarians talk about using BISAC, which is what bookstores use for identifying subjects and grouping books. I’ve looked at it, and it seems too complicated for practical use with students, so no thanks, I’ll stick with LOC Subject Headings and Dewey numbers.

Another librarian said they’d reorganized their library according to the subject classes their students take in school. That’s how I relate Dewey Subjects to students, and I change Dewey numbers to work for them by placing books where they’ll be found for class assignments and pleasure reading. And while, as stated above, I do relate History to historical fiction and Science to science fiction, I don’t see how other subject area classes would fit with organizing Fiction.

Regardless of what terms are used, careful and consistent topical labels on book spines, especially when used with some form of color-coding, can make our Fiction area as kid-friendly as possible.

line of books laying down

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How to Create Multicultural Special Collections in Your School Library

If you are bothered by racial and cultural biases in the Dewey Decimal Classification system, modify it a bit to make your collection more culturally responsive. Here's my solution that could work for you, too. | No Sweat LibraryIn 2001, when I became the School Librarian at the district’s most diverse middle school (1/3 African-American and the other 2/3 equally split between Hispanic, Anglo, and Asian), I quickly realized the limitations of DDC for making a collection culturally responsive. I had questions similar to those posed by another librarian in a more recent LM_NET listserv post:

“I want my collection to equitably reflect my students and their world, and am bothered by racial and cultural biases in the Dewey Decimal Classification System, in the Library of Congress Subject Headings, and other systems. … how do you combat systemic marginalization in the organization and classification of your collection? Do you reorganize your collection to reflect the population you serve, or pull books about particular groups or subjects together, while retaining Dewey classification and adding spine labels/stickers?”

Intent on solving this DDC difficulty, I perused my copy of Abridged 14 and discovered a way to use the Dewey system to better serve our diverse populations. When Abridged 15 came out, I was pleased that there were no changes and my system was still valid. It answers all  my questions and those of the listserv post.


Our first responsibility as School Librarians is to make the school library student-friendly, so we can make changes to help students find what they need! silhouette of trooperThere are no “Dewey Police” that punish us for changing a book’s Dewey number. In fact, OCLC regularly makes changes to DDC to meet the changing needs of our society. And changing Dewey to meet the needs of our students fulfills the very purpose of DDC: “works that are used together to be found together.”

I don’t worry about changes because few librarians really know enough DDC numbers past the 10 main Classes to be confused by my changes. As for students, we didn’t have to know LOC to locate a book in our college library. We locate an item using the Call Number listed in the OPAC, and that’s what our students do, too. I prefer being a “creative Dewey-ist”, in that I’ll always change a Dewey number to put a book where students will likely look for it.

Overcome the racial & cultural biases of Dewey Decimal Classification by adapting existing numbers to make the School Library collection more culturally responsive. Here's how I did it... | No Sweat LibraryWith my student demographics in mind, I noticed the DDC Table 2 Geographic Areas lists numbers for the continents to use in DDC numbers—i.e., it’s that second number right after the 9 in the 900s. I decided to use these as “continent of origin” numbers for cultural/ethnic groupings and adjust Dewey numbers to reflect cultural origins:

  • 3=Jewish & other Semitic groups (Ancient Worlds includes Palestine)
  • 4=European or Anglo
  • 5=Asian
  • 6=African
  • 7=North American or Native Nations
  • 8=South American or Hispanic/Latino.
    Though Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are included in North America, I chose to include them here for cultural identity & to avoid confusion with U.S./Canada & Europe.
  • 9=Australasia and the south Pacific islands


In my school library collection, there are 3 Dewey sections with the largest number of books related to cultural, ethnic, and racial topics:

  • the 300s, notably 305 Social Groups, 306 Culture & Institutions, and 398 Folklore
  • the 920 Collected Biographies
  • the 973 U.S. History section

920s Multicultural Shelf Labels920 Collected Biographies

I had already begun to redo the 920 Collected Biographies, using 921-928 for Subjects according to DDC 920 Option A. I decided to make 920.3-920.9 “Multicultural Collected Biographies” by adding the pertinent continent number to the right of the decimal. (I know Option A is a little different, but who knows or cares?) I barely got the section reorganized before kids noticed the new groupings and began checking them out. Chalk one up for my first Special Multicultural Collection!

973 U.S. History

Next I tackled 973 U.S. History. DDC Table 1 Standard Subdivisions designates .04 as Special topics. I had noticed the Library of Congress catalog has many African American history books with 973.04 (followed by a few more numbers), so I decided to use 973.04 for Multicultural History & Events, adding a continent of origin number after the 4. Table 1 designates .08 as Groups of People, so I made 973.08 for Multicultural National Groups, adding the continent of origin number after the 8. (Table 1 has different things for that third number, but again, who knows or cares?)

Make Dewey Multicultural - Try my Dewey 973 Multicultural shelf labels, part of my NoSweat Dewey Subject product on my TPT store. #NoSweatLibraryI gathered relevant books from other areas of our collection, made new spine labels with the relevant cultural designation, and ended up with 3 full shelves of books for our “new” Special Multicultural America Collection:

  • 973.045 became Asian-American History
  • 973.046 became African-American History (including the Civil Rights Movement)
  • 973.048 became Hispanic-American History
  • 973.083 for Jewish-Americans in the US
  • 973.085 for Asian-Americans in the US
  • 973.086 for African-Americans in the US
  • 973.088 for Hispanic-Americans in the US
  • I also added 973.082 for Women in America

I did not put books on U.S. slavery in these collections. Instead I used 973.714 to place them in the Civil War numbers since that’s when the topic is studied in 8g Social Studies. I pulled many books from the 300s and other sections to expand that section. In fact, I had pulled so many books from 305 Social Groups and 306 Culture & Institutions for the new U.S. History topics, that the remaining books were fewer and more relevant as global topics, so I didn’t need to make any changes there.

398 Folklore

I had already made significant rearrangements to 398 Folklore, and I decided using 398.2089 for ethnic/national groups was way too many decimals, so instead I use 398.23 Folk Literature of Places & Times and add my continent of origin designations to create 398.23 Multicultural Folktales. What a remarkable difference that makes to our sizable folklore collection! It’s now so much easier to use, especially when I need to pull books for lessons or for classroom use.

  • 398.231 Non-specific or mixed folktales
  • 398.233 Jewish & other Semitic folktales
  • 398.234 European folktales
  • 398.235 Asian folktales
  • 398.236 African & African American folktales
  • 398.237 Native Nations folktales
  • 398.238 Hispanic/Latino & Hispanic American folktales
  • 398.239 Australia/Oceania folktales


To build student awareness of multicultural books in our Fiction area, I apply multicultural labels to the top of the spine of fiction books that have cultural, ethnic and racial characters and topics. I use labels for African American, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Nations, as well as Cross-Cultural labels for stories with multiple racial/ethnic characters and Multicultural labels for stories taking place in other lands.

As School Librarians & responsible educators, we want to imbue appreciation for diversity, not amplify differences, so I leave our multicultural books intermingled with other books on the shelves to best serve that goal.

NoSweat Multicultural Fiction Book Labels - The Multicultural Fiction labels template is in my e-List Library. Join my Mailing List and download for free.
Get a template to print my Multicultural Fiction Labels by joining my e-Group. It’s a free download from my exclusive e-Group Library.

Reading multicultural fiction creates understanding, so during library orientation I promote Multicultural Fiction as a specific reading topic. The ELA Student Reading Record I create for students has a page showing the multicultural labels, and students know to look for those labels when they want to read an ethnic or cultural story.


Before we can promote multicultural reading we need to build a collection that is culturally diverse. Our fiction area had a number of cultural historical fiction books, but it’s also important to offer quality modern fiction stories with diverse characters. Most book vendors offer a variety of reviews and our librarian colleagues make recommendations related to diversity in books, so each year I make a special effort to purchase as many of these as possible. They’re easy to process by just adding the relevant cultural label at the top of the spine.

Some may worry about the time and effort required to redo book spine labels and change catalog call numbers for every new multicultural Dewey book, but really, how many of these does one order at a time? The next librarian will know exactly what to do because I have detailed explanations in my Librarian’s Handbook, both print & digital versions. As it turns out, every school librarian I’ve shown my changes to has loved the idea, especially that students can now find these books and check them out like crazy!

Make it easier for students to find a Dewey book in your school library with these colorful, pictorial signs and shelf labels. They're just what you need for your middle school or elementary library!


Do you like the shelf labels
shown above?
Make your School Library
more student-friendly!
Get Dewey Subjects Signs
& Shelf Labels

at NoSweat Library, my TPT store.


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