Definitive Guide to Classroom Libraries for the New Teacher, Part 4: Maintaining Your Library
May 19, 2019
— books, classroom library, independent reading, new teacher, teaching reading
Now 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 school teachers, mad respect for all that grading. Yikes.)
Alright. Before we jump into maintaining this library you just built with your own two hands (and wallet), first, I need to share a hard truth with you. It sucks a lot, but I’m just going to come right out and say it. Students are going to lose your books.
I’m sorry. It’s out there now. The big, ugly truth about classroom libraries is that you’ve invested money in creating reading experiences for your students, and some of those reading experiences are going to grow legs and walk away and never be seen again. It’s the hard reality of teaching, in much the same way that all the pencils have miraculously disappeared by November, except with a larger price tag.
I wanted to put the depressing bit of this post up front, because I need you to know that the loss of books is simply an inevitable part of starting and maintaining a classroom library. In spite of that inevitable loss, a classroom library is still worth it, and is still one of the single most powerful things you can implement to turn students into readers. And, depending on the level of effort you’re willing to put in, there are things you can do to prevent some of those book losses and help ensure that your library stays strong.
Before I jump into some anti-loss measures, I’ll start off by tying up some loose ends of library setup and upkeep so that you’re not tearing your hair out every week with a library that looks like this one.
Library setup for optimal maintenance
Let’s talk about how to finish setting up your library to make maintenance easy from Day 1 to Day 180.
Label your system.
If you decided to use a specific organization system (read more about those in Part 3), you may need to label your books based on that system. This is especially true if you’re doing topic or genre baskets or shelves, or sorting your book by a reading level system. Library websites like Demco sell pre-made genre stickers you can buy for relatively cheap, or you can purchase mailing labels of various sizes and make your own. I have found that mailing labels tend to pop off a bit easily with time, so I bought these sticker covers from Demco to keep my labels locked down long-term.
Labelling your books will make it far easier for students to re-shelve them, and thus you can enforce an expectation and make a clean, organized library the students’ responsibility.
Consider labelling books for content.
One of the joys of teaching middle school is that students are in the middle in almost every sense of the word, and this includes acceptable reading content. Some of my students are mature enough and ready for Young Adult content in their fiction, and some are still firmly residing in the land of Middle Grades. There is nothing wrong with either of these camps, and I leave it entirely up to my students (and their parents) to decide what content is appropriate for them. However, to help make that decision easier, I tag all of my YA books with YA stickers on the spine (I made some to print on mailing labels with a picture of a Pac-Man ghost to help it stand out).
Designating books as having YA content helps my readers make more informed decisions about their book choices, but it also protects me. While I take reasonable precautions to ensure that books are not too inappropriate for 14-year-old students (my hard line is usually explicitly-described sex or drug usage; anything that goes beyond casual, passing mention), there is content in some YA books that parents might find objectionable. I have parents sign a letter at the beginning of the school year that places responsibility for content of students’ reading firmly in the hands of parents and students. It is independent, choice reading, and I do not feel it is my job to censor what students read. I mark books with this content so students can be aware of it, and I move on.
Decide on a check-out system.
How will your students check out books from your library? When are they able to check books out? May books from your library go home with them? How long can students keep books for? These are all decisions you will need to make for yourself before students begin using your library. I will detail two of the most common book checkout options later in this post, but some teachers choose not to have any kind of checkout system at all- students grab books and return them as they please. Like me, some teachers allow checkout any day during reading time, while others limit students to certain days of the week on a rotating basis to prevent the library from becoming a social space. I allow my students to take books home, as I want them to be reading as often as possible, but I also understand the decision of those who ask that their books remain in the classroom to help minimize loss and damage of books. I generally let my students keep their books as long as they need to finish them, but if I haven’t seen a title in a couple months I’ll start inquiring with the student about where it’s at and when I can expect it back. Making all of these decisions in advance, while perhaps difficult, is essential to a smooth-running classroom library.
Post your rules.
Once you decide what the rules and procedures are for using your library, you should be sure to share them with students in a place where they can be easily seen year-round. I hang sheets by my non-fiction and fiction sections that explains the organization of each section and the checkout process for books.
Consider having 2 or 3 class librarians.
If you do jobs with your students, consider having some class librarians. These students can be in charge of checking out books to classmates if you’re comfortable with that, and they can also be responsible for general library upkeep and making sure books are in the right places. This invests students in keeping the library orderly and takes the task out of your hands.
Share the rules with students on day 1, and day 2, and day 3…
Invest a lot of time early in the year in explaining and reminding students of your library rules and procedures. It will begin to feel repetitive, but if you ingrain the behaviors early it will mean less work and frustration for you later on in the year. Make students practice if needed, and hold students accountable for care and upkeep from the beginning.
Rotate your books.
No matter what system you use, try to rotate your books a few times a year on the shelves so that new ones are at students’ eye-level. This is part of the reason I keep my books in baskets. Around winter break I reverse the alphabet of my fiction baskets so that my Z basket is first on the top shelf and my A basket is last.
Clean out your baskets & wipe off your shelves 1-2 times a year.
I opt to clean mine in early August before school starts, as I’m usually so burnt out by the end of the school year that I couldn’t possibly care less what state my book baskets are in. If you have particularly messy students or just want to minimize dust and germs, you might also want to clean them out over winter break. Enlist people to help you with this task- find some local high schoolers who need community service hours, or a friends with younger kids who want to make a few bucks.
Decide how much protection you want to give your books, and how much you’re willing to pay for that protection.
I put library-grade dust-jacket covers on all of my hardback books. This ran me between $60-90 for my pretty sizeable library, including the jacket covers, the special tape to attach them, and the special tool you need to smooth out the edges as you’re installing the covers. I went back and forth about this additional cost for awhile, but the thing is that most of my hardback covers are new books, often brand new releases. (Note: If a book is available in paperback, always, always, always buy in paperback. It’s cheaper, it takes up less space, it’ll last longer, and I read somewhere once that students subconsciously prefer them because they’re easier to carry.)
The other factor is that once the dust jacket of a hardback is lost, that hardback is useless to you. Students simply won’t checkout hardbacks that don’t have a dust jacket. There’s no image on the cover to entice them in, and there’s no summary blurb for them to read to know what the book is about. The book will look too old and uninteresting for them to give it a second thought. Thus, dust jacket covers protect both the shelf-life and readability of my hardback books. I also view my library as a long-term investment, and $60-90 is a cost I’m willing to pay to protect that investment when the sum total value of my hardback books is probably 3-4 times that cost, easily.
How to prevent the loss of (most of) your books
Again, just to reiterate, you will never be able to prevent the loss of all of your books. But there are a few key steps you can take to minimize a lot of potential book losses.
Label your books with your name!
How you choose to do this is up to you. I’ve seen handwritten names in permanent marker, specially-made “This Book Belongs to” stamps, stickers and labels, etc. I personally prefer labels, as I can print pages out at once. Avery makes nice handy ones that are easy to pull off the sheet, so it’s fast and easy to label whole stacks of books at once. Whatever method you choose, do not skip this step! When my students leave their books laying around the school, they always find their way back into my mailbox in the staff room because the inside cover is labeled with my name. I’ve also heard stories of parents returning books to a teacher years later, when the books were discovered while cleaning out a child’s bedroom. Putting your name on those books is important.
Consider using a library-type inventory system to catalogue your books and have students check them out.
There are several popular free online library management systems out there right now; Booksource is my personal favorite and the one I’m most familiar with. The idea is that you can catalogue your entire classroom library either through manually entering or scanning in each of your titles. Then, once that’s done, you can use that online system to check your books out to students just like a real library does. It’s easy to see at-a-glance where all your books are, and how long students have had them for. You can start leaning pretty heavily on students to return your books after they’ve had them for 3-4 months. Another benefit to this system is that when you’re at the thrift store trying to remember if you already have a copy of that book you’re holding, you can look it up on your phone and know for sure!
But I will be really honest with you and say that this process is incredibly, seriously time-consuming. I catalogued all of my books two years ago with the intention of using Booksource as my checkout system, and it had lots of great features I’ll talk more about in a future post. But then I ended up purging a ton of titles from my library at the end of the school year and acquiring even more new ones, and it was just too much to deal with scanning all the new titles in and then trying to figure out which titles were no longer in my library as I’d donated them before thinking to delete them from my inventory. If protecting the investment of your books is worth it enough to you to devote the time to implementing and up-keeping this system, then it will likely help reduce a lot of your book losses. I ultimately decided the time tradeoff just wasn’t worth it for me.
Go old-school and keep a paper/ pencil log.
If an online library management system sounds too complex or time-consuming, consider doing a paper/ pencil checkout system. All you need to do is write down the date, student’s name, and book title, and you’ve got all the information you need to keep a record of where your books are at. When the book comes back, you just cross out the student’s name and write the date they returned it. Pretty simple stuff. I used a spiral-bound notebook for this, and I actually made a page for each student so I could visually see how often the student had checked out books from me or whether they’d returned everything they borrowed. It served most of the purpose I needed in terms of helping me keep track of titles and reducing the number of lost books.
While the options mentioned above won’t save all your books, it will protect the majority of them from loss by students. Remember that sometimes losing books is an inevitable part of the library experience, but when it happens, I always like to hope that either the kid loved the book so much they couldn’t bear to bring it back, or that the kid will stumble upon the book at some future point after they’ve left me and have fond memories about their time in 8th grade. Would I rather have the book back? Sure. But I’m a realist, so I’ll take what I can get.
Now that we’ve covered pretty much everything you need to know and do to start a classroom library from scratch, I’ll talk in the next post on Wednesday about tons of different strategies and activities to get kids using your library and reading books.