Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Making our nonfiction section more browse-able: Part III

Stack of books from our nonfiction section on voting, immigration, puberty, and body positivity.

A stack of books from our nonfiction section that our students found & read because we put them on display somewhere else. (Photo: Shala Howell)

As regular readers know, my current obsession is finding ways to make our nonfiction section feel more like the nonfiction section in a bookstore, and less like an inscrutable wall of books organized by arcane numerical wizardry.

In Part 1, I discussed the nonfiction inscrutability problem and some of my early attempts to decode nonfiction for my students: assisting them with search queries, teaching them how to use nonfiction one-on-one, and adding signage to highlight topics that are often important to teenagers, but that they don’t always want to ask adults for help finding books about.

In Part 2, I talked about my experiment with creating new word cloud-based nonfiction signs and rebalancing the nonfiction section to make room for as many forward-facing books as possible. (TL;DR: Word clouds draw attention but are *very* labor intensive. It’s much less time-consuming to rebalance the entire nonfiction section to increase the number of forward-facing books, and that’s saying something.)

In this post, I’m going to talk about some ideas for using the front half of the library (where the fiction and graphic novels are) to generate traffic to the back half of the library (where the nonfiction books live).

But first, what are other librarians doing?

After coming across my first nonfiction post last week, Melanie Roy, the 2019 Rhode Island Librarian of the Year, reached out to me on Twitter to let me know of other librarians who have posted on the web about their work rethinking their nonfiction sections:

In both cases, these librarians have scrapped the usual assumption that, as Kerry O’Malley Cerra put it, “nonfiction is where books go to die” and are trying a variety of ways to make their nonfiction sections feel as central to their collections as their fiction and graphic novels do.

And then of course, there’s Kelsey Bogan’s idea of decorating nonfiction stacks with related items. As she points out, dynamic shelving techniques work in nonfiction too.

I’m thinking about modifying several of these ideas for use in our library.

Asking the students what they think

Last year, I was blessed with a few dozen student volunteers. At one point in the semester, I was hard pressed to find jobs for all of them. One day it occurred to me that I could ask them for help decoding the nonfiction section. Over the course of the next two weeks, I handed somewhere between twelve and twenty students a clipboard, a pen, and a piece of paper and asked them to walk through the nonfiction section, scan the book titles, and pick out topics that they or their friends would be interested in reading about. Some students came back with only one word on their lists. Others came back to get more paper.

I compiled the individual lists into one master list, and plan to use it next year as I create displays and choose forward-facing books for the nonfiction shelves.

Creating bookstore-like table displays

We have a lovely long table in front of our library that used to host a line of computers for students to use to complete their homework. During the remote schooling portion of the pandemic, our district issued every student a Chromebook to use instead, a practice they have kept up in the years since. Since every student has their own computer, the computers on our long desk were removed, leaving behind a very long, very blank table. For most of last year, that table remained long and empty. Occasionally an aide would sit there with a student, but for the most part, aides preferred to use the round tables set in quieter parts of the library.

At the end of last school year, I used that table to host a 3-D pop-up scrapbook that chronicled the events of our first year back to in-person school from the library’s perspective. The display included the winning entries in our three writing & art contests, as well as a month-by-month recounting of library programs, stats about the most popular books from each month, and one weird but true thing that had happened that month.

My 3-D popup scrapbook display. The front section was organized month by month with photos from library events, the most popular fiction, graphic novels, & nonfiction books from that month, and at least one weird but true thing about that month in the library. The back section of this display, where the student art and short stories were, got far and away the most attention from the students. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The long table worked surprisingly well as a display surface. Students couldn’t help but notice it on their way to the gaming section or fiction stacks. Even better, students had plenty of room to browse the table from both sides.

Before I read De Fiallos and Cerra’s posts, I had already been considering sectioning off this long table to create five small semi-permanent, but regularly refreshed, bookstore-like table displays. I had intended to use four of them for various genres of fiction and reserve the last for “New and Noteworthy in Nonfiction.”

After reading their posts, however, I’m now thinking of pulling the table together into one coherent, but rotating display that supports events going on at the school or in the library. I’ll still have the small subsections for various genres, but instead of being completely independent, the subsections will comment on the overarching theme of the table.

For example, we run our Spooky Short Story contest every October. I’ve noticed that the quality of our short story entries go up when I use the library collection to spark ideas. Last year I did this through a bulletin board, but this year I could use the table display for it.

My Spooky Contest bulletin board. Along the bottom were contest rules and winning entries from the previous year. Along the top I displayed bookcovers from spooky-humorous, spooky-creepy, and spooky-scary books in our collection. I find bulletin boards really challenging to design & create, though, and would love to replace them with an easier-for-me to imagine & more tangible for the students table display. (Photo: Shala Howell, Google Slides Design from SlidesCarnival)

Three of the fiction subsections could promote spooky graphic novels, ghost stories from our short story collection, and a range of horror novels from creepy to gory to downright terrifying. The fourth section could showcase books from our nonfiction section about the craft of writing, for those students who would like tips from the pros. And that final section could include nonfiction books about the Salem Witch trials, ghost stories, and mummification, which I could bill as “background research.”

Other months could have other themes. In August, for example, the table might have small groupings of fiction, graphic novels, and nonfiction works centered on the ideas of returning to school, making new friends, and starting over in new places. I can easily imagine having a fiction section filled with books like Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds, Not My Problem by Ciara Smyth, and Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui. A graphic novel section would be easy to fill with books like New Kid by Jerry Craft, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamison, and Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova. Depending on what else I find in our stacks, I could have a section of sports novels centered around school teams (Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang, Pippa Park Raises her Game by Erin Yun, or the Track series by Jason Reynolds). There may also be room for neurodiverse stories about navigating school and family like Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Focused by Alison Gerber, and Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick. And of course, we have several nonfiction books in our collection about surviving middle school that the kids are likely to be most interested in at the beginning of school when they are just trying to figure things out. When she was helping me rebalance our nonfiction section, my high school age daughter somewhat grumpily pointed out that she would have totally read Luke Reynolds’ Surviving Middle School: Navigating the Halls, Riding the Social Roller Coaster, and Unmasking the Real You, if only she’d realized it existed.

This is probably old hat to you veteran librarians out there, but it’s all new and exciting to me. (New readers: this will only be my second year working in a library — Here’s what I used to do before.)

Rethinking other previously ignored flat surfaces

In Kelsey Bogan’s Dynamic Shelving post, she talks about how any flat surface is a display surface waiting to happen. It just so happens that we have a lovely set of windows in the back corner of our nonfiction section that have a line of very short bookshelves under them. You may remember them from an earlier post, when I used them to model our collection of Rubik’s Cubes.

A collection of Rubik's cubes, four mini-3x3s, three regular-sized 3x3s, a 4x4, a 5x5, a pyramid, and a Megaminx sit on a shelf under a window.
One of two low nonfiction bookcases slotted under our corner windows. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Students are constantly trying to turn these bookcases into window seats, because right now, the tops of the bookcases are bare. This is a perfect place to create a second semi-permanent rotating display of nonfiction books. I could showcase at least six more books here *and* never have to ask another student to stop sitting on those particular pieces of furniture. Win-win. Even better, thanks to my student-generated list of interesting topics, it won’t take too much thought or time to pull books that my patrons are likely to be interested in.

Decorating the nonfiction section with eye-catching objects that can be seen from a distance

As Kelsey Bogan points out in her Dynamic Shelving post, I don’t have to limit myself to decorating the library with books. She advocates for livening up the nonfiction section by decorating it with objects related to the various topics that aren’t necessarily books: stuffed animals, microscopes, and so on. The currently bare tops of our freestanding nonfiction bookcases would be a great place for this sort of stuff. They are just a little too tall to effectively display books, but might work well for related non-book objects.

When I first read Bogan’s post, I started hunting around my house for items that might work. The 3-D puzzle of Notre Dame that I did back in the summer of 2020, for example, or the steampunk-y objects my daughter made from her KiwiCo Eureka Crates. You know, the stuff that you don’t really want to keep but that it feels wrong to just take apart and throw away.

But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself reflecting on much the students enjoyed seeing each other’s art on display back in May.

This library isn’t about me or the random things I have lying around my house that happen to tie into our collection and that I’d like to find a use for. It’s about the students and what they are interested in. And it seems pretty clear to me that they are interested in each other.

What would a student-centered display look like?

At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, I could use the tops of our freestanding nonfiction bookshelves to showcase the winners of our three 2021-2022 art contests. Over time, I could easily update the display with this year’s winners.

But what I’d really like to do is ask the Art, Drama, and Career & Technical Education Teachers if I could enliven our shelves by showcasing some of their student projects. Maybe the Art Teacher would let me create a temporary display of projects from an upcoming (or recently past) student exhibition. I could ask the Drama Teacher to lend some student-made props from an upcoming (or just past) performance. The Career & Technical Education teachers must have a variety of improbably strong balsa wood bridges, electric vehicles, and student-designed robots that I could display up there, if only briefly. It’s worth a conversation, anyway.

If I could give my freestanding nonfiction stacks the reputation of being the place in the school to see what their classmates are creating in their art, drama, and technical classes… now, that would drive some traffic. And who knows, someone might just decide to check out one of our nonfiction books on drawing, crafting, computing, engineering, or acting while they are there.

That said, I am going to wait to roll this one out until later in the year, or maybe even next year. I want to assess the impact of some of the other changes on how our space feels and how the students react to it first. We have many neurodiverse students in our library and if I fill every flat surface with stuff, I may accidentally create a space that is no longer welcoming for them. They need some calm uncluttered spaces to look at too.

Other quick ideas

This post is getting pretty long, but very quickly, here are two final ideas.

1. Use looping slideshows to promote nonfiction books on display

In her post, Cerra talks about using nonfiction-centered looping slideshows to promote particularly interesting titles. I already use looping displays on the Big TV behind the circulation desk to promote new arrivals. This year I will throw in some looping slide shows to promote the nonfiction books I’ve placed on the New & Noteworthy Nonfiction section of my long table displays, the bookcases under the far window, or simply finds from the stacks on topics I know the students are interested in, like animals, coding, and chemistry.

2. Using temporarily bare shelves to host even more front-facing nonfiction books

When a teacher asks to use the library for a research project, we typically move all of the nonfiction books related to their class into the teaching area of our library. This is *great* for teaching, but it does tend to make our nonfiction section look kind of desolate. When we pull those books on space, the ancient world, or WWII, we create swathes of empty shelves in our nonfiction section. Last year, we simply put up a little sign telling folks to look for those books in the teaching area and called it a day. This year, I’d like to experiment with using those shelves as a migrating “Staff Picks in Nonfiction” display, and pull nonfiction books from other areas and showcase them face-out on the temporarily empty shelves.

So many things to try. I’m almost sad it’s still summer and I can’t do them yet.

Not too sad though, because it’s really nice to sit here thinking library thoughts with this guy.

Orange cat hugging my arm while I scratch under his ear.
My cat, making a persuasive argument that it’s time for me to stop typing. (Photo: Shala Howell)

What about you?

  • Librarians, what ideas do you have for boosting your nonfiction circulation?
  • Readers, what would help make nonfiction sections feel more accessible and browse-able to you?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

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