Clara Roethe, who is will be helping with the design of some of the logos used in the library this year has asked for an overview of the categories I will be using to divide up the books. Currently, I have books piled up everywhere on all of the tables in the library itself, and also in those borrowed from other classrooms.
My experience of working in the library last year, and the conclusion I have come to from reading other library blogs and doing some research into the different ways schools divide up their books, is that it can often be very hard for children to find the books they want to read. In particular, I would say that many of the students in this school struggle to find books of fiction. This appears to be for the following reasons.
- They struggle to find books at the right level. Books which they know or have heard them draw them in, and this may be a Harry Potter book when they are still way too young, and their reading skills still way too low, for them to be able to read it. This is an international school and many students are not native speakers of English, so this issue with the levels of books is even more problematic than it might be at other schools.
- By and large, our children do not know authors’ names. Roald Dahl, yes. We do him to death (meaning that we go over and over every book he wrote as if there is no other writer in the world; and I say this as a great lover of Road Dahl): we start off at the very start of the school year with Roald Dahl Day, and then continuing to give him so much attention that one student last year would throw himself on the floor by the end of the year at the mere mention of his name. Some of the girls in year 5 were also very keen on Jacqueline Wilson last year*. Mostly, though, children seem to remember titles of series (Harry Potter, rather than J. K. Rowling, Diary of a Wimpy Kid rather than Jeff Kinney).
- Children would like to find books that are similar to other books they have enjoyed, but they don’t know how to go about doing this. A General Fiction section laid out from A – Z does not help them to do this.
Back in September or October I started looking into the different systems that were used to organise books in school libraries. A few stickers had been used by the people who had set up the library at my school here, but the school had now expanded into secondary, and the system had its problems even as far as primary was concerned. Adapting it would not be sufficient, it seemed to me. I would need to redesign it completely.
One of the first systems I came across was one designed by Tiffany Whitehead who maintains a blog of her experiences working in a school library in Louisiana at Mighty Little Librarian. Tiff wanted to replace, or “ditch” the Dewey system which is used in various forms in most libraries around the world. She felt strongly that changing the fiction shelves so they were divided up by genre would help children to find the kind of books they wanted to read. I suspected that she was right, but knew that it was a big job that could only be done while the school was closed for the holidays, and wanted to first see how children cope with the system we had so that I could tailor a system to best suit their needs. In this time, I looked over other systems such as Dewey itself, Junior Dewey, and Metis, which was designed by the Ethical Culture School in New York City.
What becomes obvious when you look at all of these alternatives is that, as with many things in life, there is no one choice that will please everybody and which would suit every single user in every single way. The best system would be one that was designed to fit the kind of books and the kind of users the library has now and would have in the future, meaning that the behaviours, interests and skills of these users are considered. Whatever weaknesses that remain after that should then be noted so that the librarian, me, can best fill them with advice and help and by being available for any kind of questions and requests.
So far, I have been mainly concerned with fiction. I have decided upon the following categories:
- Fantasy and science fiction
- Realist fiction
- Animal tales
- Mystery and Suspense
- Historical fiction
- Poetry and Plays
Are there overlaps between some of these categories? Without a doubt. Could some books be categorised in more than one of these areas. Certainly. There are workarounds for this and I have considered the possibility of, for example, putting DVD cases with scans of book covers in the second of two categories a book could be placed in (rather like the “for Mahāyāna, see Buddhism” you might see in an encyclopedia), but even without this, I feel that this system will lead to a much greater proportion of the books being borrowed and read than was previously the case. I have put a book in one category rather than another because of my own feeling that the drive and the feeling of the book is more of one category than another. If you have rabbits that talk, but those animals are investigating the murder of a hedgehog, I’m probably going to put that book in Mystery and Suspense rather than Animal Tales. Humour was one category I thought I could not do without but which has proven to be one of the most problematic. Many books are fairly funny, but it is only those books I thought have been primarily written to be funny, that have ended up in the category.
Staff who disagree with me are probably going to be told they can come in and implement their preferred system in their own unpaid overtime or that it’s too late, they should have told me before I put the stickers on (which I haven’t yet, and I’m in something of a panic about that, but never mind). What I am hoping, though, is that students will disagree with me. As much as genres are a useful, even necessary idea, they are an approximation. If the students come to me with a book and tell me it should be in a different category, that’s wonderful. It means they have an idea about the book and a growing awareness of genre and the different styles of writing.
I might change the category of a book once in a while. I might even come to reshuffle a whole shelf or two. In the main, though, I think that the kids will have a better sense of what kind of books to find where.
The second major thing I am trying to do to address the problems outlined above is to develop a system for rating levels on the books. This is another BIG job.
I taught English for a few years, have been teaching a couple of my old business students over the summer, and doing this is very useful in terms of building up an awareness of the kind of difficulties a text can involve.
I started out with a design for labels that would involve a code giving the age by school year the book is aimed at, followed by a level in lower case Roman numerals. I wasn’t keen on using dashes, full stops, or other characters which might separate two numbers and cause confusion with the other use of these characters, such as for decimal points or subtraction, elsewhere. Of course, though we teach about the Romans from early on, Roman numerals might themselves be confusing, so I have changed this now to a number, for the class, followed by a letter expressing the level. The level is broadly designed to be one to ten for the range that might be experienced in books that may be encountered by the bulk of our students. Certain books stocked by the library such as Dickens’ Hard Times and Great Expectations, A Norton Critical Edition of Beowulf, and Chapman’s Homer** fall outside of this range, leaving, by my reckoning, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Complete Short Stories of Graham Greene, and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility at level 10, or j, and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and David McDuff’s translation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at level 9, or i.
The level will represent all kinds of grammatical and lexical difficulty including sentence-length, register, use of dialect, slang, or technical vocabulary. The number that precedes the level will be chosen for the subject and content of the book, it’s emotional complexity, and for other such demands that are made upon the reader’s maturity and life experience.
Once again, these levels must necessarily be an approximation. I have tried to tether them to levels used by other systems, such as the Oxford Reading Tree we use for home readers, and to Penguin Readers, many of which I ordered recently for those pupils whose level of maturity is way ahead of their reading skills. If this system works, it may possibly deliver far greater gains in terms of the ability of students to access books, even than the system of categorisation. Many a time, a book may be boring not because its content is not full of exciting developments, but because it is too difficult for the children to really understand what is happening. But again and again I see a tendency for children to pick up books they will be unable to access on this level. I also know from my own experience of choosing Czech books, that it is not easy to choose books, matching their level to that of your own language abilities. The way I see it is that a woman who most often buys clothes in a size sixteen, may occasionally encounter a shop whose sizes are so consistently eccentric that she has to buy a size fourteen. She is unlikely to fit into a twelve. Though I may get the levels “wrong”, I don’t think I will have got they will be so far off that they will not be useful.
I will write about the Non-Fiction (if indeed I call it that) another day.
* There is no Jacqueline Wilson day, though perhaps there should be.
** Not the most approachable translation to be stocked for a school, I would say myself.