Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 3: Organizing Books

Welcome to Part 3 of my series on starting a classroom library from scratch as a new teacher! In Part 1, I discussed how to begin searching for titles your students will love, no matter what grade you teach. In Part 2, I listed 17 different low-cost ways to start collecting books for your library. In this third installation, I’ll talk book storage and different approaches to organizing your library, so you can answer the question of where the heck to put all those wonderful books!

Book Storage Options


Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4 Source 5 Source 6 Source 7

Your best book storage options will depend on the size of your library and your classroom. Some teachers prefer one or two floor-to-ceiling shelves to maximize floor space; I use shorter shelves that run along a wall underneath the windows of my classroom. Both are valid options. If you’re clever and craftsy, you can get shelves such as the popular IKEA Kallax or Expedit models that can double as seating for your young readers with just an afternoon’s effort and a few add-ons. Plastic milk crates can be spray-painted and attached together with zip ties or strong adhesive to create all sorts of modular shelving options to fill your needs. The more creative and outside the box you can think here, the more you’ll save and the more inviting your library can be!

Seating AND book storage! Source
Spray-paint milk crates to match your classroom decor and create modular storage in any shape you want! Perfect for odd classroom layouts to maximize available space! Source

Two of my shelves were hand-me-downs from the teacher I took over for, and I scrounged up the others at Aldi for cheap. IKEA, garage sales (both digital and traditional), Craigslist, thrift stores and the side of the road before trash night can be places to find shelving. Another great tip is to drive to your local college town the weekend of graduation- many graduating seniors will leave used furniture behind to be dumped, and you can find some pieces that are in pretty good condition. (Incidentally, this is how I found my favorite desk chair!)

One man’s trash, etc. Source

If you are someone who likes everything to be matchy-matchy (believe me, I get it!), snag some spray paint and sand paper from the local hardware or craft store, or use contact paper to cover shelves. Within the last decade or so the amount of available designs for contact paper has exploded, so you’re sure to find a design you love that will match the rest of your classroom decor!

These days, contact paper can make anything pretty! Source
Spray paint is a great option for open wire shelves! Source

To basket, or not to basket?

Or, both! Source

I keep my books in nice, sturdy Sterilite baskets. This makes it easier to shift them around on the shelves (and refresh what’s at students’ eye-level periodically), and to pull out whole baskets of books for activities with students. I also have to use baskets for my Aldi shelves, because they’re made of that open wire that things could potentially fall through. The Sterilite baskets are a bit pricey compared to what you can find at the dollar store, but those suckers will last. My mom has used them in her own third-grade classroom library for over a decade and rarely has to replace any. Before the start of each school year, you’ll want to go around and wipe out the baskets (a task my younger sister and I were often assigned in our earlier years), to remove dust, debris, and random writing utensils that always somehow seem to find their way in.

A clear benefit to not using baskets is cost. It’s definitely cheaper to get standard bookshelves and just place the books right on them. But, if you have a non-standard room space or are having to get creative with where your library goes, baskets can help you use all available space by placing them around the classroom in different locations, on top of counters, etc. Baskets might also not be the way to go if you’re primarily stocking picture books- at least, not the Sterilite baskets. The larger ones you’d need to fit picture book sizes are more expensive, and a full basket would likely be too heavy for little hands.

If you go the basket route, you can label your baskets with laminated index cards, or the Target Dollar Spot sometimes has peel-and-stick clear label pockets for book baskets during their back-to-school sale.

Find a friend or relative who builds things.

If you are not a crafty woodworker, maybe you have a friend or relative who might be able to build you some shelving or book storage for the cost of materials and dinner. This could be a way to get some of those neat book display furniture pieces without spending the hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars they often cost from school supply companies. Here’s a basic set of plans for building a front-facing wooden book display. If your library is mainly picture books and you are able to mount shelving to the wall, here’s a set of super easy plans for wall-mounted book ledges. And here’s a post on a whole variety of DIY classroom furniture including multiple shelving options and more!

Organizing books on shelves

Now that you’ve got some shelving, let’s explore some common ways to organize the books in your library, and pros/ cons of each.

Method 0: Just don’t.


If you’re in the “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” school of organization, choosing not to organize your books at at all might be your option- just stick them all up on the shelves and let students have at it!


  • Literally the easiest setup ever. Step 1: Put books on shelves. Step 2: You’re done.
  • You don’t have to feel rage when you notice for the 7th time that week that your students have mis-shelved titles again.
  • There’s no need to label baskets or books with any sort of system. You don’t have to think about it.
  • It’s the equivalent of shopping at a thrift store; students never know what they’re going to find, but that makes great discoveries all the more exciting.


  • You will never be able to find that one specific book you want right now.
  • It’s hard for students to find books that fit specific interests or preferences.
  • It’s harder to observe whether you have a good balance between different genres and topics in your library.

Method 1: Author’s last name

An oldie but a goodie, organizing books by author’s last name is still a logical choice, whether you’re using traditional shelving or book baskets.


  • It’s much easier for you to find specific books when you’re recommending titles to kids.
  • It’s easy to setup initially, and doesn’t require any labelling of books.
  • It’s easy upkeep organization for you and students.
  • For young students, organizing your library the same as most school and public libraries keeps things simple and relatable.


  • If you’re doing baskets, they can end up a bit uneven this way- if you only have two books by a ‘Q’ author for example, a basket would be a waste of space. I got around this by combining letters (an ‘L/M’ basket).
  • This setup makes it difficult for students to find books on topics or genres that relate to each other. If a student just finished a really great mystery book, they can’t easily find a similar book to start on.
  • If you’re a compulsive organizer, you might end up spending too much time trying to keep books organized in this system.
  • If you’ve got a series by the same author (Harry Potter, etc.) or by a different author (the Dear America diaries), you have to decide whether to make these separate baskets or a separate shelf section.

Method 2: Sort by genre

Source 1 Source 2

Sorting your fiction (and non-fiction!) books by genre (mystery, realistic fiction, etc.) is fast becoming a much more popular way to organize both classroom and school libraries.


  • This sorting system makes it easier than ever for students to find books they’ll like once they understand elements of genre and know their own preferences.
  • It’s easy to make sure you have a balanced library with this system, because you can quickly see which genres might be lacking in terms of titles.
  • It’s an easy sorting system for you and students to upkeep once it’s set up


  • It’s a more intensive system to set up, especially if you want to make upkeep easy for students by labeling the genre of each book.
  • Some books are extremely difficult to peg into just one genre, and this makes it time-consuming to sort them initially as well as possibly difficult for students to find. Historical dystopian, anyone?
  • It can be more difficult to find specific titles quickly, as compared to the ‘author’s last name’ system.

Method 3: Sort by topic

A third library organization option is to sort books by topic (animals, winter, family, etc.).


  • A great system for younger students who don’t have any conception of genre yet, but might be able to choose their interests by topic.
  • Even older students might have an easier time finding interests in this system.
  • This organization somewhat mirrors the Dewey Decimal system of organization, meaning it could be a great option for non-fiction books.
  • While setting this system up will still take some thought from you, it’s likely still less-intensive than sorting by genre, especially for books you maybe haven’t read.


  • Still more time-intensive than sorting by author’s last name.
  • You have to decide what topics or categories to include, which can be time-consuming if you don’t know the main topics of every title in your library.
  • There’s the possibility that you end up with a handful of miscellaneous titles that don’t fit any of your topic baskets. #awkward
  • As with genre, when you get into chapter books and middle grades/ YA, you have to decide which of the many topics in a text is the primary one when you sort. That coming-of-age story ripe with family tensions with an athletic main character set during the Civil Rights Movement is going to go… where, exactly?

Method 4: Sort by reading level

Sort your books by reading level, no matter what leveling system you use- Fountas & Pinnell, Accelerated Reader, Lexile, “I Can Read” or other pre-leveled text series, etc.


  • Great for primary readers especially to help find books they will be able to read independently.
  • An easy system to help your students find books within their level if that’s a priority in your classroom.
  • Easy to maintain once you’ve set it up; your baskets or shelves can be labelled by level, and if you sticker your books then kids just have to match the level to the basket.


  • This system can be limiting for students in terms of keeping them away from books they might fall in love with.
  • You have to individually look up the level of each book, and books that are too new (or too old) may not be pre-leveled.
  • Leveling systems may not always provide the most accurate picture of whether a book is truly appropriate for a particular student. Complex themes, etc. may not be reflected in the level assigned to a book based on the criteria a leveling system uses.

Method 5: Mix it up!

I’ve outlined the four most common methods of classroom library organization above, but you may find that one system is not the key for you. In my library, I organize my fiction by author’s last name and my non-fiction by topic. I have series in their own separate section in chronological order, and I keep separate baskets for poetry, short story anthologies, and dramas/ plays. I will also occasionally do separate topical baskets for my fiction; for example, I recently acquired a set of books containing collections of short folktales from different ethnic backgrounds. These weren’t technically a series, but I decided to highlight them by giving them their own basket. Be flexible with your setup, and feel free to choose whatever works for you and your students.

Other library setup considerations

Picking a library organization system requires some thought from you about what experience you want your students to have and how much effort you’re willing to invest to maintain a system. However, this is just one (albeit important) piece of the puzzle, as is deciding upon a shelving system and whether to use baskets. You will also need to make decisions about whether to label your books to fit your shelving system, whether you want to tag books with certain types of content, what to do if you run out of space for books in your library, etc. In the next post of this series (coming tomorrow!) I will talk about maintaining your library- some of these additional decisions you’ll need to make before opening your books up to your students to ensure that your investment is protected, your books are cared for, and your students have a great reading experience.

3 responses to “Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 3: Organizing Books”

  1. […] back tomorrow for Part 3, where I will discuss classroom library setup and maintenance, different ways to organize your […]


  2. […] that you’ve got stacks of books (Part 1 & Part 2) and something to put them on (Part 3), let’s talk maintaining a library in a classroom of anywhere from 18 to 150 students! (High […]


  3. […] lists (Part 1), collected scores of awesome books (Part 2), organized those books into a system (Part 3), set your library up to have the best chance of long-term success (Part 4), and worked to get your […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: