Blogger Intellectual Freedom Committee

A Tale Of Two Libraries

Although we all work in libraries with children, we can differ widely on a number of issues.  One of these issues is how to shelve our books. There are many different philosophies about the best ways to shelve children’s books, and this blog post will present two such philosophies from librarians in the same system. Theresa “Tree” Martus will present her reasoning for separating out series fiction in paperback, and Amanda Goldson will discuss why she prefers to interfile these books.


My name is Theresa “Tree” Martus, and I am the Children’s Manager at the South County Regional branch, the busiest regional branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

As librarians it is in our nature to organize; to see our shelves neatly arranged with materials accessible to all. As a children’s librarian, making materials easy to find for patrons of all ages is key. When our “spinner” shelving racks were removed, the paperbacks needed a new home. We toyed with the idea of interfiling them with our hardcover Juvenile Fiction, but somehow this did not seem quite right even for librarians who like order. How easy would it have been to simply organize books by author and call it a day, but this is not how children think. They want the Magic Tree House or Captain Underpants. They do not want Mary Pope Osborne or Dav Pilkey. Paperbacks are also a great way to inspire reluctant readers.  They are less physically daunting then a hardcover book. In addition, parents want the ease of finding books appropriate for their child’s reading level and that meets their interests. How daunting is it to find a second grade reading level book in the sea of hardcover juvenile fiction that ranges from first grade beginners to older readers ready to make the leap to YA?

And so, when the spinning racks of paperbacks were hauled away, we decided instead of interfiling our paperbacks by author, we would create a new set of shelving that would group these books together by reading level and interest and to arrange the books by series title. What we have are four sections of paperbacks designed to meet the needs of our users. Each section is marked by different colored signs that list the series to be found within each shelving bay.  They act as a way for children to browse, looking for books in series similar to the ones that brought them in the first place. It allows us to recommend and highlight different genres and to highlight new series that the library is only purchasing in paperback form. The four sections are:

  • Beyonders (noted by white signs listing alphabetically by series are beginning chapter books, roughly second and third grade reading level)
  • Mystery and Adventure (noted by red signs listing alphabetically by series are mystery and adventure themed/ genre books for older readers, typically boy interest titles like Goosebumps, Star Wars and Underworld)
  • Animals and Friendship (noted by yellow signs listing alphabetically by series are animal and friendship themed/ genre books for older readers, typically girl interest titles like the Cupcake Diaries, Dear Dumb Diary, Poison Apple and Goddess Girls )
  • Newbery Award Winners (noted by green signs marked Newbery Award Winners)

paperback seriesInstead of having to search the catalog and the fiction section with a list of titles and corresponding authors, one quick glance and a young reader can be on his way with book in hand. But that is not to say that a list is not useful. Located near our paperbacks are lists and bibliographies of books and authors for each reading level and for various genres that can lead parents and children to browse the hardcover fiction section looking for books similar to the paperbacks they have come to know and love. We highlight genres, promote staff favorites and lead interested readers looking for more to the hardcover juvenile fiction section and find the treasure hidden therein.

Like all things that we create in the hope of making life easier, this system is not without its bugs… we have taken away the ease of shelving by author known as the hallmark of organization. In a time when the library has come to look for outside help from volunteers, this system also does not seem to readily lend itself to a smooth volunteer training as we cannot simply say, “Organize all fiction by author’s last name.”  To this end, we have a paperback pre-shelving area where we simply ask circulation staff and volunteers who are not comfortable with the series system, to place the paperbacks allowing for our children’s staff to ensure that these books are shelved correctly by series for ease of access by patrons.

We have seen that, even though it may take a bit longer to shelve and keep organized, the benefits speak for themselves. In looking at out circulation statistics, the numbers of children’s fiction in paperback and hardcover are checked out at almost the same ratio, which also shows how well we do ensuring that patrons of all ages do find treasures in traditional hardcover fiction as well as in the paperback series they know and love. In March of 2011 roughly 5,500 children’s paperbacks checked out compared to 5,400 hardcover items. The following year, in March of 2012, roughly 5,200 children’s paperbacks circulated as did 5,400 hardcover titles. In March of 2013 we saw over 6,000 paperbacks circulate, but most amazing, roughly 7,400 hardcover children’s fiction. We can see how well materials circulate when we take a few moments to think outside the box, forego tradition and allow our browsing patrons to browse with ease.

Having seen the success and the high circulation numbers relating to our paperback series for older readers, we made the foray into picture books as well. Neatly arranged in Princeton files with the characters embossed on the outside are the Berenstain Bears, Clifford the Dog, Little Critter and many more favorites for the preschool set. In addition to the Princeton files of favorite series, we have also created bins of books that contain hardcover books for various age ranges. We have bins designed to hold picture books selected for Babies, 1’s and 2’s, 2’s and 3’s, Preschoolers, 4’s and 5’s and older readers. We also have created concept boxes which lead all of those little ones who love trucks and trains, dinosaurs and counting, words and the alphabet, to find hardcover picture books with ease. In this way, like our lists that help guide paperback fiction fans to hardcover fiction, our bins help patrons find materials suitable for their child’s age and interests.

In both our fiction and picture book sections we make ties between the paperback and hardcover books by suggesting other areas of the collection. In both areas we leave it to the patron to begin with the map we have started for them and dig for treasure.  And that is what makes the library so exciting. Whether it is a paperback book or a hardcover that delights, amuses, creates a mystery, or makes you guess, it is all about finding something new. To this end, we have used our paperbacks to create a place for children to dig deeper in areas designed just with them in mind so that they can unearth a gem.  In addition, parents can be comforted in knowing that a child for whom Rainbow Fairies is a treasure will not be as likely to take home a book that is not appropriate for their age or reading level.   By separating out our browsing paperbacks we are allowing patrons of all ages the chance to unearth a treasure, a new author or a new title and thereby we hope we are creating the next generation of library explorers and lifelong learners.


I am Amanda Goldson, the Youth Services Supervisor at the Matthews branch, the busiest community branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and I am a current member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee.

kids readingHave you ever stumbled upon a really great book while in search of something else? This kind of serendipitous moment happens in libraries around the world every day.  Unlike in a chain bookstore, where the most popular books are featured prominently and there is very little room for older works, in libraries, we can treat all books as equals; Little Women can have as much shelf space as the newest 39 Clues book. In a society where so much is determined by popularity, the library can be a place that is free of pressures to conform to what’s popular. Each child’s choice of reading material can be as individual as the child. When series books are interfiled with juvenile fiction, children are invited to explore the full breadth of a library’s collection.

Currently, at the Matthews branch, our series books are interfiled, and there are some additional benefits. Patrons, volunteers, and staff can find books easily, as everything is organized by the author’s last name. All works by an author, regardless of format, are together. Shelving is simple, as is pulling holds, which is especially important in a library in which volunteers do much of this work. In addition, circulation statistics show that paperbacks and hardcover books are checked out nearly equally. While separating out series fiction is eye-catching and allows children to quickly find the most popular series, I believe that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits of this practice.

Some children may think of books by the series name, rather than the author, but the same could be said about adults. Many adults come to the library for the latest in the Temperance Brennan series, but they have come to learn, as children do too, that the author’s name is important in finding the book. If a patron (child or adult) does not know the author’s name, it is easily found by asking for help or searching the catalog. When a child comes into the library and asks for the Magic Tree House books, I see it as a teachable moment. It is just as easy to walk them to the O’s for Osborne as it is to walk them to a specific series paperback section, but while we walk, I can explain that the author’s last name is Osborne, and that’s how we find the book. They can use this knowledge to find any fiction book in just about any library in the future.

shelvingParents often look for books on their child’s reading level. Some people’s response to this is to organize the books by reading level. I suggest that leveling books promotes one person’s (or company’s) leveling system over all others; it is inherently subjective. The public library is about offering unlimited access to information, and leveling leads to restricted access (even if that is not the intention of the librarian). Leveling also tends to pigeon hole children based on their reading level only. I remember how often, as a child, I reached for a book that was beyond my reading level! Sometimes I was forced to give up on reading it, but sometimes, my interest in the book pushed me to read something a little more difficult. However, to address the needs of parents and children searching for particular reading levels, we have printed bibliographies of great books for each grade level. In addition, our catalog offers the ability to search by the reading level system that is most popular in our schools. Step-by-step instructions on how to do this search are posted in computers in the children’s area.

Finally, I believe that the way in which we shelve materials touches on some intellectual freedom issues. As librarians, we are called to be unbiased in our selection of materials. Doesn’t that also translate to being unbiased in our shelving of those materials? If we promote one type of material over others, are we not being biased? I’m not sure. What do you think?


  1. Kelly

    After talking to several librarians and observing my students browsing/ check out habits I decided to reshelve our school library in a combination of the two systems you discussed. I am a inner city middle school librarian for 7 th and 8th graders who have reading levels between 1st grade and college. I have as many students who love books as hate them and with only two years with them I have to work quickly to convert the haters.
    What I have done is shelved graphic novels right up front so it is easy for them to grab and check out. We have 4 minute passing periods and can check out graphic novels in under 2 minutes.
    Next sectioned out the fiction series. Not only have we selved series together, but we have large clear labels of the series names. This includes series with multiple authors. Since I do love Dewey I have organized them alphabetically by authors last name, but it is the series title that the students look for. At first I only put popular series in this are, but it was so popular I have moved all series there. It was a lot of work and gets confusing for new people shelving, but the kids love it and understand it. It has also made it easier for me to guide and suggest materials. I have also seen more students guiding and recommending books.
    The rest of the fiction and non-fiction is still shelved in the classic Dewey. However, I have started labeling the non-fiction by topic breaking down the sections into smaller chunks and using the heading of most interest to the students.

  2. Lisa

    I appreciate these differing arguments in the wake of a patron’s complaint about our paperback spinners, on which paperback series are interfiled, shelved by first letter of the author’s last name. The exceptions are series by multiple authors (e.g., Candy Apple, Horse Diaries, Star Wars), which are shelved by first letter of the series name.

    I appreciate the desire for things to be easy, but I’ve spent enough time in libraries to realize that no one system of shelving or cataloging is going to satisfy every need. For example, we recently interfiled our preschool/primary nonfiction with older nonfiction. It’s easier now for the folks who want to look at all materials on a certain topic. It’s harder for the folks who only want to see materials for a certain age level.

    We had complaints before; we have complaints now. So, was it the right thing to do? I don’t know if we’ll ever know for sure. I think ultimately the best solution is to continue to provide great customer service and educate patrons in how to use the library.

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