Recently, Lynn Burns Butler, who has worked as both an elementary and high school librarian, let me know about some of the ways she has encouraged students to explore the nonfiction sections in the collections she’s managed over the years. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience, Lynn!
We librarians are creative and inventive creatures, and one of our greatest talents is helping patrons discover books they never realized they want.
As a new librarian in the early 1990s, I worked in a small K-5 public school library with four sections—fiction (chapter books), everybody (early readers and picture book fiction), nonfiction, and reference. I was disappointed that many of the nonfiction books were never checked out.
One day a kindergartener came to me with Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle and asked if I had any books about REAL spiders to go along with it. When I helped her find one, she was overjoyed. I noticed other early elementary students making similar requests—nonfiction books connected with a fiction book they’d already chosen—and hatched a plan.
One weekend, I pulled all the nonfiction books with a K-2 reading level and relabeled them with ENF stickers—Early Nonfiction and grouped them by topic in a new section. Then I planned a simple lesson on “Real versus Not Real” for K-2 students.
First, I cut up some old issues of National Geographic and glued photos of insects, sharks, birds, and mammals on colored paper. Then I color copied the covers of some popular fiction picture books, like Corduroy by Don Freeman and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and mounted them on colored paper too.
When students arrived, I held up the images I’d prepared and asked if they showed something that was real or not real. We then discussed that some books are about real things in life and other are made up. The children had no trouble making this connection.
The next part of the lesson introduced the words “fiction” and “nonfiction,” and I had examples of each. I avoided using illustrated nonfiction titles to prevent confusion.
Next, I showed students the new ENF section and let them know that, while it’s great to read made-up stories about spiders and snakes, it’s also fun to learn about the real creatures. Nearly every single student checked out a nonfiction book that week.
The next year I began buying more nonfiction, especially for the ENF section. I also began creating Buddy Book displays that paired fiction books with an animal character and a nonfiction book with factual information about the animal. Displaying Buddy Books was a natural progression from my “Real versus Not Real” lesson, and the students LOVED it. In fact, many of them began creating their own fiction-nonfiction pairings.
By the time I changed schools 6 years later, I clearly understood that I was free to rearrange my collection to best suit the needs of my students. For the remaining 10 years I served as an elementary librarian, I always had an Early Nonfiction section in my library. I truly hope the librarians who came after me kept that special section.
When I took a job as a high school librarian 5 years ago, nonfiction checkout stats left a lot to be desired. As I evaluated the section, I realized the shelves were choked and crowded. To increase their circulation, I did a massive weed.
As I pulled books, I kept reminding myself that since the school had curated databases and other online resources, I could afford to be picky about the nonfiction books in my collection.
Next, I did some rearranging to better meet students interests and needs. I pulled all the military books into one area, added red labels with gold stars to the spines, and created a SP COLL tag to go above the decimal number.
I also created a special careers section. Not only did circulation of these books increase throughout the year, having all the books shelved together was a tremendous help when our senior on-level English classes did a career research project during the last 9 weeks of school.
After weeding and reorganizing, I was left with five large shelves that are perfect for nonfiction book displays. Here are some of the thematic groupings I tried this year:
· This Is My Life: I Need Help, which featured books about anxiety, depression, relationships
· Has This Happened to You? with books on bullying, date rape, internet shaming
· Coding and Internet Security
· Know Your Rights, including books on LGBTQIA+ issues and rights of teenagers
· Do You Believe? which had books on Bigfoot, UFOs, aliens, the Bermuda Triangle, and other unexplained phenomena
I love seeing the students peruse those shelves and talking among themselves. The best reward of all is when they turn to me and ask, “Can I check this out?”
Next year, my goal is to try some dynamic shelving in nonfiction. I love examples I’ve seen in other libraries and am excited to give it a try with my school’s collection.
Lynn Burns Butler began her professional life as a high school English teacher. She taught junior high English, history, and geography, and served as a Teacher Consultant for National Geographic for ten years. Lynn also worked as an elementary librarian in San Angelo ISD for 16 years then spent 8 years working as a Publishers’ Representative selling books to school libraries. She is currently in her happy place as librarian at Taylor High School in Taylor, Texas.