Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Making our nonfiction more accessible

New nonfiction titles include books on coronaviruses, space, BIPOC artists, spies, environmentalism, sports books, and video games.

Some of the new NF titles we introduced to students this month. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Good morning!

Grad school is having a “catch up on your reading week,” and I thought I’d use this pause between catching up on my reading and getting started on the two papers a week I have due between now and December 6, to report on how it’s going nonfiction-wise at my middle school library.

It’s been a busy month and a half for us. Total circulation (fiction and nonfiction) in September 2022 continues to enjoy a healthy 32% increase over the same period last year. Our work increasing the accessibility of our nonfiction section continues to pay off. In September 2022, nonfiction circulation was up 129.27% when compared to the same period last year. Even better, on average 42% of those nonfiction books are being checked out for the first time in more than two years.

At some point this month, I came across a quote somewhere-maybe in one of my grad school readings, maybe on disability Twitter-to the effect of “accessibility issues cloak demand.”

In other words, if your service is hard to navigate, you will never realize how much actual demand there is for it. Folks who need it and who would otherwise use it will give up in frustration or simply go elsewhere. I have been thinking about that a lot this month, as I watch the students interact with our nonfiction collection, and as the returned nonfiction books overload my shelving carts.

It’s caused me to shift my view of this project. When we started working on our nonfiction section, I thought of it in terms of increasing demand by making the nonfiction section more browse-able for casual users. But after observing the results over the past two months, I think what we’re actually doing is breaking down barriers to using nonfiction to reveal the demand that already exists.

Why the huge jump in nonfiction circulation this month?

It was not all me.

One of our teachers brought all of her classes in with the express requirement that they browse our renovated nonfiction section and check out at least one book. Teacher support is essential, and it gave our Teacher Librarian a chance to remind several classes’ worth of students how to navigate our nonfiction section. Which reminds me, I need to send that teacher a thank-you note.

My pop-up display this month, themed around our annual Spooky Art & Writing Contest, also moved a ton of books. Many more books than my Surviving Middle School display last month, truth be told. In observing how the kids interacted with the Surviving Middle School display, I noticed that they tended to take the books on the table and leave the books in the bookcase (for the most part). So I made some changes for the Spooky Contest display.

Photo of my display. The display consists of books placed flat on a purple tablecloth. Four signs meant to be read from left to right are centered in the middle of the long table, and say things like "The Spooky Art & Writing Contest starts now!" and "What kind of spooky will you create?"
For my Spooky Contest display, I used a combination of graphic novels, short fiction, how-to books on writing and drawing, as well as various books from our nonfiction section on ghosts, haunted houses, mummies, monsters, and spooky folk tales from around the world. The display also included the contest rules, past winning entries, as well as tip-sheets I created last year for writers and artists based on past years of judging the contest. (Photo: Shala Howell)

(Note: This post contains affiliate links to If you use them to buy books from, I’ll earn a small commission. Read more about why I decided to use affiliate links here.)

This display moved a ton of books. We were constantly refilling gaps in it throughout the day. Nonfiction-wise, the drawing books were extremely popular, as were books like Killer Koalas from Outer Space, Fearsome Creatures from the Lumberwoods, Ask the Bones, and the various monster books. We’re going to continue using this style, with a few tweaks to improve neatness, going forward.

Of course, it helped tremendously that the display was themed around a topic that the students themselves were interested in. In short, a powerful tool to be used when a timely and student-driven topic comes up.

What other changes did we make around the library this month?

I did a few other small things this month. They aren’t having quite the same impact as the displays or teacher support, of course, but they also didn’t require nearly as much effort.

Asking the students for help updating our nonfiction collection

Our nonfiction collection is the product of steady accumulation over two decades. In other words, there are a lot of old books lurking in there. My Teacher Librarian is weeding the 300s and 500s this year, but that leaves eight other Dewey Decimal sections unattended. The odds that a student will come across something that is out of date and/or otherwise needs to be replaced are high.

So I posted little signs around the nonfiction section inviting students to let me know when they find a book on a topic of interest to them that is too old to be useful. So far, students have come to me with requests to update our gardening books and to find new nonfiction options on immigration law for teens.

Orange sign that says: "See something wildly out of date? Please let us know." The graphic on it shows a treatise written on parchment with "EXPIRED" stamped across it.
Folks on Library Twitter may recognize the basic design of this sign, as it is based on @ShackLibrary’s daily social media updates for their library patrons. (Design: @ShackLibrary; This ad: Shala Howell, created using Google Slides).

Little reminders in popular places

I’m also experimenting with placing little reminders of our nonfiction collection in popular places. For example, we have a very intense set of chess players this year. It just so happens, we have several books on learning chess in our collection. I took one of them, and placed it on display next to the chess games.

Photo of our games shelf. Jenga on the shelf above, chess & checkers on the middle shelf, with a book on Chess on display next to them.
The little star on it says “Check me out!” (Photo: Shala Howell)

When students take the book down to use during lunch, it exposes this little sign.

An empty book display holder with a little orange sign on it that reads: "Did you know we have books that will teach you how to play chess?" The graphic shows a tiny version of my Dance Sports & Games NF section sign.
Another nonfiction ad created using @ShackLibrary’s design. This one includes a small image of my Dance, Sports, & Games sign as a visual clue to where the students will find the Chess books. (Photo: Shala Howell, with deep thanks to @ShackLibrary. If you aren’t following them on Twitter, you are missing out on some powerful ideas for running a school library and some great communications-friendly graphic design.)

What’s coming up next month?

Great things, friend, great things.

Ok. Truthfully, I don’t know yet, but I’ll report back (probably in December once the semester is over), to let you know what happened.

Thank you for spending part of your day reading Caterpickles. If you work in a library or simply read nonfiction, I would love to hear your thoughts on other ways we can make our nonfiction collection more accessible to students. As always, if you see an idea here that you would like to try in your library, please feel free. If you have time, I’d love to hear how it worked.

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