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Creating a Middle School Classroom Library

By Mary Blow on September 14, 2010
  • Grades: 6–8

Welcome to my library, a work in progress. I started my library five years ago. Classroom libraries should be organized according to your goals. My goal was to create an atmosphere that motivates my students to become lifelong readers and writers. I strived for a delicate balance between an elementary classroom library and a high school academic library. I envisioned my library as a quiet place to read or to study, a miniature replica of our high school library, but it was also important to include books and resources that expand upon topics and themes studied in 6th grade content areas. In this post, download free library shelf labels and library card templates to organize your own library.

IMG_4956 When I introduce my library, I host a book talk. It is easy to find books that interest girls. However, in recent years, more and more books are emerging that target the male audience. Last year, I had avid male readers who often shared their opinions on books. I compiled a list of their favorites and created a Book Wizard list, "Hot Books for Middle School Boys." Many of these books are on display, as they will be included in the book talks this week. Although these are books that interest boys, I found that girls, too, liked the books in this list.


Where Did I Get So Many Books?

I have three primary sources for the contents of my library:

  1. Rummage Sales: Many times, people are willing to make a deal for a whole box of books. I even provide my family members with a wish list, and if they come across any books, they pick them up at rummage sales as well.
  2. Scholastic Book Clubs: Each time students place orders, the teacher earns points, which can be used to buy new books. I usually let the students pick out the books. There are huge bonus points for first year teachers, so don't miss out.
  3. Leave a Legacy: With parental permission, students donate books they don’t want anymore. I create stickers for the inside of the book, giving thanks to the donor. You would be surprised at how many parents are very excited to give away used books that their children outgrow.


Organizing the Library

Student Librarians: At first glance, this looks like a lot of work. It is, but I don't do it. During their spare time, 6th grade student volunteers maintain the library, cataloguing new books, signing in returned books, filing books away, etc. This year is exciting because I have a librarian’s desk, which will make their role more official. I buy the book pockets and library cards, and they do all the work. Each book has a pocket with a library card in the back. I get my library materials from DEMCO. However, my colleague, Dawn Sweredoski, a Charlotte Award Committee Member, uses blank 3 x 5 index cards and makes her own. Here's how to do it:

  1. Cut the blank card in half.
  2. Tape the sides and bottom to the back inside of the book.
  3. Create you own library card using the library card template that I designed using Microsoft Word.
  4. Print them on blank 3 x 5 cards (front and back).
  5. Insert the cards into the pocket.

When my 6th graders want to sign out a book, they simply sign it out and put the library card in a recipe box. When the book is returned, the card is put back in the book, and the book is returned to the library. Look at the skills they are learning. They sort the books into genres. They alphabetize books by authors. And, they learn about themes.

Genre_library_labelsOrganizing and Labeling the Library

For the most part, the library is organized similarly to our high school library. The shelves are labeled and the books are catalogued according to the Dewey Decimal System. I used Phillip Martin's clip art to created a list of genre labels and a list of ABC labels for the fiction books. I also created plain library labels for higher grades. Since the books are organized like the high school library, my students can search for books using our online card catalogue. They search by the author's last name to find a book on my shelf.  This year, I am using Scholastic's Book Wizard. If a student really likes a book such as The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, he or she can use the "Search for Similar Books" feature. The results would reveal that this is the first book in a series and suggest other similar books on mythology. Once they find the author and title of similar books, the students go to the library and look for the book.

IMG_4947Fiction Section

Novels, short story collections, sections of the classics, folklore, and poetry are housed in the fiction section in the center of the library with a rocking chair and carpet for students to engage in relaxed reading. Sixth grade students have outside reading books at all times, so this cozy space allows them to kick back and relax while reading. I also have multiple copies of popular books. However, many students, especially those who struggle with reading, are more motivated if their friends are reading the same book. So, until I run out of precious space, I will keep the redundant copies. This year, I added a “Favorite Author” section. I’ve learned that students, once hooked on a series, want to read the entire series. I can relate to that after my addiction to the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. So, I set out to make their lives easier and put them all in one spot.

Writing center Nonfiction Section

The reference and nonfiction sections, which are located at the back of the room, were designed with two goals in mind. First, I wanted students to be able to engage in independent research. If questions are asked in class, I want them to be able to get up and seek answers. Second, I wanted a study space, as they'd find in the high school library. The reference section contains writing reference books to support students with writing and to guide those who seek to publish their work. Although my nonfiction books are inventoried and catalogued according to the Dewey Decimal System, I chose to group them by subject areas: history, science, or geography. This is because my nonfiction book section is not as developed. I am restricted for space, so I chose to invest in magazines on topics that interest my students and that supplement my lack of nonfiction books.

IMG_4959 Magazine Section

My magazine section is massive.  It is located in the reference and nonfiction area. Current issues are stored in the magazine rack. Past issues are stored in magazine files on the bottom shelf. Magazines are fabulous for hooking the resistant readers. Students who don’t like to read are more likely to read a magazine, with its short articles, versus a chapter book. Nonfiction magazines reinforce nonfiction text features: patterns of organization, illustrations, captions, text boxes, sidebars, etc. In addition, magazines expose students to the most up-to-date information, whereas, nonfiction books often become outdated quickly. I subscribe to the following magazines:

  • Calliope
  • Cobblestone
  • Cricket
  • Faces
  • Junior Baseball
  • Kids Discover
  • NASCAR Illustrated
  • National Geographic Kids
  • Spider
  • Sports Illustrated Kids


Leveling Books

Picture book I have books ranging from the 4th grade level to the young adult level. However, I do not level them because middle school students are self-conscious. Many go to great lengths to disguise their struggles with reading, and from their perspective, putting labels on the books labels them, too. So, how do my students select a book? I show them that many books have reading levels on the back cover. If a book doesn’t have the reading level, we use the Five-Finger Rule to help students select an independent level book. Students evaluate a book by reading a page from the middle of the book. As they read they put up one finger for each word they do not know or each word that they cannot figure out using context clues. If students have one or two fingers up after reading one page, this is an easy read for them, so I suggest that they pick something a little more challenging. If they have three to four fingers up, it is okay. If they have five fingers up, it is probably too hard, so I suggest that they save it or a later date.

Libraries are a work in progress. Scholastic Instructor (2005) published an article, "Creating Your Dream Classroom Library," which is a great guide for teachers who are interested in creating a classroom library. If you have library pictures you would like to share, join my educational Facebook community and share your photo ideas. Below is a display that Dawn Sweredoski shared with me. The picture on the left is Dawn's display of World War II books. In the picture at the right is her library. She groups her books differently, sorting them into themes or topics of study.

IMG_4975 IMG_4961

Comments (15)

Many thanks for the magazine suggestions! I liked how you blended library skills and academic inquiry in the classroom.

This is ALOT of extremely useless information, when you tell people to use something that you created (like a library card template) you should have a link or atleast an explanation of how to find it. Someone even asked you already and all you did was ignore them, i hope you realize how low your intelligence seems to everyone else.


I think it's truly ironic that you are insulting someone else about their level of intelligence when you yourself have constructed a comment with so many errors. I certainly hope that you are more careful when instructing your students.


Thank you! :)


I find your post to be extremely rude and unprofessional. I appreciate the care that the author took in explaining how she organizes her library. A thanks is in order.

Do you have a copy of your shelf labels you are willing to share. I volunteer at my school library K-3 and none of the shelves are labeled and the kids have a hard time finding books they want. It would be a tremendous help.
Thank you,

Mary, have been looking for a while now for some easy-to-follow instructions on how to set up a school library - we are trying to do the same for a small private library for a private school in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thanks for inspiring us!
The team from SOLA

Do you have the library card template you would be willing to share?


You are in luck. First, I think writing is a struggle for most students in middle school. I do descriptive writing; however, most of my writing is nonfiction. September 28, I am posting a blog about motivating students to engage in the revising and editing processes. This Friday, I am meeting with the special education specialist, so she can help me with diversifying writing instruction to meet all students' needs. Yippee! Motivation is at the top of the list. For now, I find publishing to the web motivates students. Using R.A.F.T.S. also motivates students. If you google it, you'll get a plethora of ideas for R.A.F.T.S. I'd be glad to share what I learn after meeting with the special education specialist. Check out my personal web site. I post all my writing activities there: http://www.lacs-ny.org/webpages/MBlow/. You are welcome to borrow anything...just give me credit. My new favorite book is by Laura Robb, Teaching Nonfiction Writing. I think every Middle School English teacher should own this book. ~ Mary

I am needing to find some sort of template to use in starting a class library. Do you have this to share?

Mary, Thanks so much for posting so MUCH useful information. I have spent a good portion of my day reading the wonderful things you do with your students. I tried to look at your site http://www.lacs-ny.org/webpages/MBlow/ but cannot access it. I was wondering if you have a different webpage now. I would really like to see some of your writing activities. Thanks!

Mary, I have books, that's not the problem. I am running out of space. You inspired me to do more to my classroom. My sixth graders read 30 to 40 books a year. Reading is not the issue in our school. I need/want fresh ideas or resources to motivate students to take ownership in writing. Help!

Mike, your library sounds fabulous. I like your idea of keeping a book list. I have heard that some teachers have students carrying 3 books: one on level, one for fun. I forget what the 3rd one is for. However, they are supposed to be on them at all times, so they can read in any spare time. I, too, have lost way too many books, which were purchased at my expense. Thus the librarian. I'd love to see pictures of your library. ~ Mary

Hi Mary,

It was great that you wrote an article about the classroom library. This year I am revamping my classroom library.

I have all my books with a colored sticker. The color of the sticker shows the books genre (red is science fiction etc.). I also put the Lexile number on the sticker, so students have a general idea about the reading level and since the lexile levels "cross grades" and since the number is so small (it's on the sticker)...the students won't be embarassed about their reading level. (I had my sixth graders volunteer their lunch time to label all my books using the Scholastic Wizard...which is a GREAT resource.)

This year I assigned a class librarian and she is the ONLY person that is allowed to take a book off the shelf and sign it out. (I lost TOO many books last year!) Some may believe this is a little extreme, but I require students to RESEARCH the books they want to read. I don't allow students to just grab a book off a shelf...I find most times the student just returns the book because they don't like it.

So I show students how to research books via awards (especially children choice awards), genre, or best seller lists (NY Times, BN.com and teacher lists like yours). During the first week of school, I model how to research interesting books and then I provide ample computer time for them to create a list of 3 books that they WANT to read. Then, if I have the book, it can get signed out. The students consistently update and add to their "I Want to Read Book List", so the students always have a list of books they WANT to read.

The Scholastic Book Wizard and Book Alike, which my students use, is awesome.

In terms of cheap books, I buy used copies at Amazon.com. I pay a fraction of the price for a book that has been read only once! (I also do Scholastic.)

Actually, Allie, I am training my librarians this week. I would love to your daughter in my class. ~Mary

Mary, I am very impressed with your well-organized library. The kids must love to go to your class. And how wonderful to have the kids be responsible with checking out, checking in and keeping the shelves neat and orderly. I wish my daughter could have had you for a middle school teacher - she would have loved being in your class. Allie

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