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How to Organize Your Classroom Library

Teachers love to think about ways to make things work better.

My favorite classroom system to revamp over the summer has always been my classroom library.

I like to clean it up.

Re-organize it.

Maybe re-label it.

Clean and organized books are honestly my soul food.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself about your own classroom library systems:

  1. Did you like how your classroom library was organized last year? (genre, reading level, etc.)
  2. Did you like how your classroom library was set up? Could you get to all of the books easily?
  3. How did student book shopping go? Could they do it independently?
  4. How did book return go?
  5. Were you able to find your mentor texts easily when you needed them?
  6. Did you lose books without a good checkout system?
  7. Did you accidentally buy books that you already had?
  8. Did students know what to do with damaged books?

Your classroom library should be a place that is welcoming and draws students.

More importantly, it should be a place that they can access and use easily and independently!

Here a few questions you need to ask yourself before you start organizing (or re-organizing):

-Decide on your space, do you need more shelves?

-Decide on your materials, what kind of bins or buckets are you going to use?

-Decide on your strategy, will you separate books by genre, category, reading level or a combination?

My Classroom Library Materials: 

  • 2 large black shelves (provided by the school)
  • Bins from Dollar Tree
    • Super Affordable
    • They have worked really well because the students take the bin and set it on the ground to browse through the books and then put it back up when they are done.
  • Labels from my own Classroom Library Labels and Guided Reading Labels 

My Classroom Library Organization Strategy

We have all heard the research that says students should be reading books “on their level” every day during independent reading time.

But, we've also heard the research on the importance of teaching kids to love to read and the importance of students being able to read books that interest them.

For these two reasons, I have organized my classroom library into two sections: On Level Books and Interest Books.

On Level Books:

When I have students book shop, I have them choose two books from their level first. I really like these leveled book bin labels because you can add student names or notes in the white space.

If you are looking for something different, I have also tried writing the students’ names on clothespins and pinning it to the bin I wanted them to shop from. The only problem that I had was that the clothes pins would break or a student would knock one off and not know where to put it.

Having their names on their bin makes book shopping a lot more independent for my first graders. 

Interest Books:

After my students have found their on level books, I let them choose two interest books from the other bookshelf.

This shelf is also where we keep our iPads and books for our listening station.

It is very important to me that students are able to pick at books on their reading level but ALSO get to pick out books that they are interested in

I truly believe our job is not just about teaching them HOW to read, but to teach them to LOVE reading! 

J.K. Rowling said it best: “If you don't like to read, you haven't found the right book.

Classroom Library Set Up

Once you have decided on your organization strategy, your next step is to look at your physical space. How does your organizational strategy fit with the space you currently have?

Do you have the right materials and shelving?

Do you need to re-arrange?

Remember, the number one priority is that students can easily access books and that they arranged in a way that is inviting to them.

If students don’t feel comfortable in a small, classroom library…

Imagine how they feel in a bigger school or pubic library or even a book store.

This is the perfect opportunity to make them comfortable and guide them in their first steps of picking out the books that are right for them.

Student Book Shopping

As I mentioned earlier, my first grade students do their own book shopping by the 3rd or 4th week of school.

I’ve seen and tried many systems for student books. My favorite has been the book bags from Really Good Stuff because they have handles that can hang in the students’ backpack cubbies (our cubbies are in our room).

But I’ve also seen teachers with book bins that also works really well! It just depends on your space and your preferences.

So, when a student is done book shopping, they should have two books from their level and two books of interest.

Then, when we are done with our books during our guided reading time, those books go in their book bags also for independent reading time.

My kids keep their books for at least a week, then we return our books and shop for new ones.

Here’s a Tip about Independent Reading Time

I used to have my independent reading time as one of my guided reading stations, but I found that it was hard to make sure students were on task at that time because of everything else going on in the room.

Now, we have a separate 10-15 minutes set aside everyday before lunch where every student gets their book bag and finds a quiet spot in the room to read.

Student Book Return

So, my students are independently book shopping by the end of the first month, but book return was never as easy.

I usually set aside 20-30 minutes every Friday for book return.

I’ve done it several different ways.

But before I explain HOW, I should preface by saying that all of my books were clearly labeled on the back with either their guided reading level or which interest bin they were in.

A few ways I had students return their books were:

  • Simply turn in all the books to me and I sorted them back myself
  • Students turn in all books to me and I had a few select students help me put the back
  • Students lay out all of their books on their desk face down (so they could see the label) and as I called out each level/interest bin, students would bring me the corresponding books

I’m sure there are easier and maybe even better ways of completing the book return process, but this is what worked for me!

The key is to find a book return system that works for YOU!

Mentor Texts... Another Great Debate

Ahhh, another great debate: Do you let your students use your mentor texts?

As teachers, it can be hard for us to give up control. I mean, we don’t want our favorite mentor texts to be bent or torn, right?

But I think we are actually doing a great disservice to our students.

It is SO much more POWERFUL to use a book as a mentor text, then put it in your classroom library and let students read it again and again and again.

Students connect to books so much better that way.

And, it’s especially helpful for your struggling readers because they already know the storyline! It allows them to get a good, quality book from your classroom library and feel as if they are capable of reading and interacting with it!

My one piece of advice: have a good inventory system so you can easily find your mentor texts when you need them! (We will talk about this a little later.)

Classroom Library Checkout System

We talked about book shopping and book return early in a very simple way.

However, if you find that you are starting to see books go missing or students are maybe checking out books that aren’t right for them..

You might need a checkout system.

A checkout system can be as simple or advanced as you need it to be.

I created one for my own classroom that you can use digitally or print it out and write on it.

I used this especially for the books that I sent home. (YES, I SENT BOOKS FROM MY OWN CLASSROOM LIBRARY HOME for students to practice reading… what’s the worst that can happen? A student keeps a $3 book? If so, they probably needed it more than me).

I like having a checkout system because when I am assigning books to students, I know what they have already read (so I don’t send it twice) and I also see what books they like so I can assign similar books.

Classroom Library Inventory System

Along the same lines of a checkout system, you probably need an inventory system for your classroom books as well.

An inventory system allows you to see what books you have and what genres or subjects you have (or need).

My favorite aspect of an inventory system is that I can easily find books when I need them.

You know that moment when a student asks a question and you think “man, I have the perfect book for that, but I have no idea where it is!”.

Well, with an inventory system, you can easily find ALL of your books!

You might be saying, well… that seems a bit overkill.

But let me tell you.. there are a LOT of ways you can categorize a book. For example:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid could be in:


-Realistic Fiction

-Chapter Books

If you have an inventory system, instead of searching in all three of those boxes, you know exactly where it is!

PS:  Did you know that if your inventory system is digital in either Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, you can use “Ctrl+F” to initiate a search feature that will allow you to find your book in mere seconds? You’re welcome.

Damaged Books: Book Hospital

Behind this shelf (on a window seal) we keep our “book hospital”.

This is a bucket where students can put books that need a little special attention for ripped pages, etc.

This is a life saver because students are no longer interrupting my small group to tell me that a book is ripped.

Then, when I have time, I can mend whatever books need fixing and return them to the classroom library!

You can purchase my set of Classroom Library Labels here: 

(Please note that the labels in this product are slightly different than what is pictured. I created a better, yet simplified version of classroom library labels that are genre and subject specific!)

You can find my Guided Reading book bin labels here: 

You can find my Classroom Library Inventory and Checkout System here: 

More First Grade Favorites:

How to Organize Your Classroom Library

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Kristen Sullins

Kristen Sullins

I am a current Elementary Librarian and
Enrichment Teacher, mother of two, follower of Christ and Texas native. In my own classroom, I love to save time by finding unique ways to integrate writing, social studies and science into all parts of my day. I also love all things organization!