We both live among hundreds of books. There are books in our personal spaces and books in our work spaces, books in our cars and in our purses; books on kitchen counters and books propped up on dining room buffets inviting the children to serve themselves. Given that we live with books everywhere, we tend to find ourselves searching for that particular book we need, whether for a teachable moment with a child (or with ourselves) or for a professional learning we are planning. Not surprisingly, we haven’t arrived at a perfect system for organizing a library, whether personal, professional, or classroom. Each organizing structure we try has its own advantages and disadvantages. Of late, however, we’ve been exploring the benefits of looser organizational structures.
In his book, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, David Weinberger makes a case for less systematic organization. We have found some truth in this idea. The paragraphs that follow present four ways of organizing classroom libraries, moving from more to less structured. We stop short of random order, because some structure seems necessary to function.
We would like to add that, any organizing structure we try must support our assumption that browsing a library is time well spent. We are searching for ways to balance becoming eternally consumed with locating specific titles when we need them and knowing exactly where every book is. We have grown to understand that the latter option, while hugely appealing to our very Type A personalities, is limiting in many ways. Quite often, our best reading comes from noticing the books we come around randomly as we are searching for others. The search itself serves a purpose, so we don’t want our organizing schemes to eliminate our wanderings completely.
Organizing structure #1: Reading Level
With the current emphasis on complex text there is intense interest in the quantitative levels of books. Many of us have lived through the days of sorting books into bins by levels or taking children to the library and telling them they can only check out books on their current reading levels. There are absolute benefits to this structure, but they are outweighed, in our opinion, by the drawbacks, the delineation of which is not the point of this blog post. Suffice it to say, the science of leveling texts and then leveling children to match is pseudo-science at best. Often, after all the leveling we are startled to find so many children reading books that don’t suit them and/or books that hold no relevance for them. If it isn’t obvious, we are down on sorting books by level.
Organizing structure #2: Topic or Genre
This organizing strategy holds promise because it brings students of all reading levels to common shelves. It offers variety and better integrates the classroom. A drawback, perhaps, is that students, like adults, have their favorite topics and genres. Visiting the same shelf over and over may not offer them enough incidental exposure to new ideas. You can compensate for this by setting in place routines where students share books with each other across genres. For us, sorting by topic or genre can work well, as long as the topics aren’t too narrow.
Organizing structure #3: Genre-ish and Topic-ish and Size
The third organizing structure is basically a loose variation on the second structure. This is a structure that tries to balance order and practicality. We are partial to it because it pushes back on our OCDness, has benefits of order and randomness. Basically start with a few categories, generally sort books into those as much as they fit in terms of size and shape. So basically, all the small nature books are together on one shelf, but the big nature books are on a different shelf, and still some other, random nature books may be scattered among other books. As crazy as this sounds, your odds of finding what you need are relatively fast, but there is also a high browsing benefit to this option. With this sort-of organized/sort-or disorganized structure, you generally know where things are but you get to look through books pretty regularly as well.
Organizing structure #4: Color and Size
This last structure is intriguing to us and was the inspiration for this post. In the design world there has been a trend to organize books by color. Sound crazy? We think it does, at least a bit. Still, when we try to think about why sorting by color won’t work, we can’t find a real problem with it. In fact, given that children are so cued into visual today, and given that we have a mental image of almost all our books, sorting by color seems to lend a wonderful randomness for browsing as well as a reasonable order for finding what you need with relative ease. And wouldn’t this be fun for kids and beautiful in classrooms? PLEASE, let us know if you try this!