One of the things I’ve become known for is my colorful and visually engaging (and non-typical) shelving strategies. I like to call this “Dynamic Shelving” and I love employing these strategies in a library, because my goal is to entice students to leave the library with a book that interests them, in their hands. Ideally, multiple books!
ProtTip: Here’s how I am able to get so many front-facing books without purchasing tons of actual book display stands: View ProTip on TikTok
With increasingly complex and over-scheduled lives, and so many media options competing for their attention (plus schoolwork, extracurriculars, social engagements, family time, jobs, other responsibilities… you get it. Teens are BUSY) it can be tough to entice them to make time for reading. Understandably, because they truly have a lot going on.
Enticing teens to read is made harder if students aren’t given time and access to a well stocked and properly staffed library (staffed with a certified and degreed Librarian as well as skilled library assistant/s), of course. But even when they do have those things (which our students do, thanks to our admin properly valuing and supporting the school library as well as in big part thanks to the incredible work our ELA department has put into incorporating in-class reading time, engaging independent choice reading assignments, and developing a culture of reading) it can still be tough to provide a collection that inspires and sparks student’s motivation to choose a book and read it.
One thing we, as librarians, can do to try to make this easier for our patrons is to ditch the outdated (and, let’s be honest, BORING) shelving strategies that have long been synonymous with libraries. You know the ones I mean… the row after row after row of book spines in perfect lines, squeezed and crowded onto the shelves. Where you look at the stacks or rows and its just a sea of uninspiring sameness.
I like to call this “Static Shelving.” Static shelving does not inspire readers. Static Shelving does not make it easy for readers to discover new books of interest to them. Bookstores don’t use Static Shelving for a reason, don’t you think? After all, big bookstores can afford the kind of market research that libraries can only dream of. If Static Shelving was proven to be the best way to get people to successfully find and choose books of interest, don’t you think big bookstores would use Static Shelving instead of Dynamic Shelving strategies? I think so.
The way bookstores organize things is not an accident. Have you been in a bookstore lately? Do the readers ever look lethargic, uninterested, lost, or especially confused and overwhelmed when browsing in a bookstore? No? Ever wonder why that is? The discrepancy between what I was seeing in behavior of browsers in a Static Shelved library and what I was seeing in behavior of browsers in a Dynamic Shelved bookstore certainly stood out to me once I started looking. It certainly made me wonder.
It made me wonder, especially, why on earth libraries were still shelving and operating so vastly differently than bookstores, especially since we both have the aim of seeing people walk out our doors with books in their hands. And I can tell you that when I was still doing static shelving, I was seeing a heck of a lot of readers walking out of the library without a book in their hands. I was seeing a lot of readers wandering around the shelves half-heartedly, looking overwhelmed, uninspired, and unempowered. I was seeing a lot of readers continually re-check out the same 5 famous authors works, the ones they knew from elementary school, because they weren’t able to identify other books they might like and were therefore unempowered to search and find successfully. Static Shelving does not make for empowered browsers.
You know what Static Shelving DOES do? Makes it easier for library workers to maintain control over the space. Makes it easier for library workers to shelve quickly. Static Shelving is all about what’s best for the library worker.
Dynamic Shelving is all about what’s best for the reader. Especially the reader who is looking to browse, to taste, to explore. The reader who doesn’t know the exact book they want yet, and for whom therefore the traditional “spines out, author ABC order” isnt especially helpful.
In this blog post I’ll walk you through the journey and thought processes that led me to developing my Dynamic Shelving strategies. I hope you enjoy exploring this post as much as I’ve enjoyed playing with shelving strategies over the years. Its been just plain fun to try different things until I came up with a strategy that works better for my readers.
And since our circulation continues to BOOM (ranging from 400% to 800% higher than it was before I tried things like weeding, genre-fying, and dynamic shelving, I’d say its definitely been better for our readers. 🙂
What is Dynamic Shelving?
Dynamic Shelving is anything that adds visual interest to your shelves. The sky is the limit on how you can do this, but basically the goal is to make your shelves SING. To make your shelves Sirens who call to their readers and tempt them to stay and play awhile. This can include any of a variety of things including (but not limited to): adding color, front-facing as many books as you can, stacking or grouping by theme/series/etc, adding shelf-talkers, stuffed animals, related toys/gadgets (perhaps a LEGO castle in the fantasy area or a model spaceship in the astronomy section), graphic wallpaper or shelf liners to add pops or play into themes, etc. Dynamic Shelving is just any combination of various strategies intended to shake things up and make your shelves more engaging, appealing, and accessible than Static Shelving (i.e. books spines out, in a perfect row).
Why do Dynamic Shelving?
To make the collection more appealing, accessible, navigable, fun, enjoyable, etc etc etc for your readers. To help empower readers to be able to independently SUCCESSFULLY browse for, and find, books that they want to read, even if they don’t have the privilege of already knowing the title and author of every book they might like, and even if they don’t have the privilege of already knowing how to browse, search, and understand how to use an online library catalog. Dynamic Shelving is not just about aesthetics (though that is an important aspect that should not be ignored because our society really does “judge a book by its cover”) its also about accessibility and equity.
The fact is that not every person who steps into a library DOES understand how to search a catalog. Not everyone DOES already know the name of the authors they might like to read. Not everyone DOES speak the same language as the library staff available to help them navigate the space and even if they DO, not everyone is going to feel comfortable or confident enough to ask for help navigating a space they find overwhelming and confusing. People will and DO leave libraries empty-handed every single day simply due to our “standard” and “traditional” way of doing things (like Static Shelving) being completely inaccessible and undecipherable to them.
We do not need to keep this level of elitist gatekeeping going. We do not need to keep organizing things in ways that are easy for library workers but difficult for library users. Dynamic Shelving is about flipping the script, and changing gears away from the power and control being held by the library workers so that the library USERS can be empowered and independent users of the space. In my opinion, that should be our main goal. Through sensible groupings, clear signage, and visually engaging organization methods we can provide a library space that anyone can successfully utilize. And since row after row of label-covered book spines is not especially accessible, navigable, or inspiring to readers, replacing Static Shelving strategies with Dynamic Shelving strategies is one excellent way we can begin to flip the script and put the power into the hands of the readers.
Why Did I Start Dynamic Shelving?
My goal was to jumpstart and increase our schools’ library book circulation, which was not as robust as I thought it could be. And lower circulation is not especially uncommon for high schools in general, since older students tend to have very busy schedules and reading is frequently one of the hobbies that can take a backseat for teenagers as their school work volumes, social engagement needs, extracurricular, familial, and other responsibilities increase. But even with that expectation, I still felt our circulation could be higher if we flipped the script a bit.
I embarked on a multi-approach to getting us there that included weeding, reorganization (genrefying and ditching dewey), updating (through new diverse purchases), etc. While those goals were being worked through, our ELA department had also been embedding more independent choice reading assignments, more class reading time, and doing excellent work to develop a great culture of reading. All of those things have been critically important and all of those things have undoubtedly impacted our soaring library circulation stats.
Throughout all of this I was constantly collecting data, through needs assessments and observation, to try to determine what things we could do to increase circulation. And my observations showed that students were frequently coming to the library for books but often leaving empty handed. I started investigating why this was and I found that students were overwhelmed by the expanse of rows of book spines. I found they didn’t often know how to find books that would be of interest to them when confronted by this anonymous wall of book spines.
Students would sometimes make their way halfway down the wall, looking lost and uninspired, and would often leave empty-handed or with a childhood favorite they had already read previously, mostly because those were the few books whose authors they at least knew to look for in this wall of author-ABC ordered book spines. I compared this browsing behavior to what I saw in big bookstores when I visited. And I noticed some things.
At big bookstores I did not see lethargic and uninspired (and unsuccessful) browsing. I saw energetic, excited, successful searching. I saw people heading off purposefully in the direction of the book areas they were most interested in, thanks to logical genre/themed groupings and clear signage. I saw thoughtful and immersed page flipping and dust-jacket reading at the “NEW BOOKS” wall of front-facing titles. I saw people wandering with baskets or arms full of books. I saw people weaving among the stacks and the mini table collections looking happy, and excited. I saw people standing still with their nose already pages into a book because they found one and couldn’t wait to start reading it. I saw people picking up more books than they needed and then determinedly sorting through to decide which of the stack of “maybes” they really couldn’t live without.
This is the kind of book browsing behavior I wanted to replicate for my students. So I started to lurk at bookstores and take notes of what strategies they were emplying that differed from the strategies libraries often utilize. I did not see many rows of book spines tightly squeezed onto shelf after shelf. I did not see the dewey decimal system. I did not see a fanatical adherence to rows of author ABC ordered fiction. I did not see stark, cold, warehouse-y rows of books.
No. I saw logical genre/theme groupings. I saw chunking via small “genres” and small table displays. I saw shelf-talkers. I SAW TONS AND TONS OF BOOK COVERS FRONT-FACING. Let me say that again, I SAW TONS AND TONS OF BOOK COVERS FRONT-FACING. I saw front-facing books on shelves and I saw book covers laid out on small table displays. Almost as if people REALLY DO JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS AND NOT THEIR LABEL-COVERED SPINES. I did not see barcode labels hideously covering the front cover art and book titles (sorry ya’ll, but barcodes on the front cover makes books ugly. I’m sorry, but I said it. We live in an Instagram era and people are attracted to pretty things. Please stop covering up the gorgeous gorgeous cover art of the books, it absolutely is impacting the likelihood of the book being chosen.)
I realized there was a stark (and somewhat shocking) difference in how libraries organize and merchandise their books compared to how bookstores do. And I found myself perplexed by this. Why are libraries still organizing books in ways that are not easily accessible/navigable (unless you are a librarian), not attractive, and not inspiring? The same aesthetic appeal I was seeing in bookstores has been mimicked on Bookstagram and Booktok, two HUGELY impactful realms of book world that we librarians need to be paying attention to. When I go to bookstores I see a care for aesthetic appeal in how books are organized and shelved. When I go to Bookstagram or BookTok (which are absolutely partially responsible for the upsurge of teens reading, by the way) I see the same thing. A care and focus on the aesthetic appeal of how books are displayed and shown.
And yet when I looked at libraries, I rarely saw that same strategy being employed. At least not deeply or thoroughly. The closest I saw was in some of libraries displays, many of which are truly exquisite works of art. But why are we limiting this strategy to temporary displays instead of making the WHOLE library function like a display. That became my goal, and that is how I ended up perusing Dynamic Shelving in our library. Every librarian will tell you that the front-facing books get checked out the most, right? That’s a fact we all witness. I started there and ended up taking it continuously further, based on inspiration I found in bookstores and on Bookstagram and Booktok. And the results of that journey (which is, of course, never over) have been awesome, as you’ll see in the pictures below.
I hope this will serve as inspiration for other librarians who are looking to shake things up and who are open to reconsidering “the way we’ve always done things” for new methods. And I hope you’ll share your Dynamic Shelving strategies with us too, because I’m certain there are librarians out there doing incredible things to their shelves that I havent seen or thought of, and I’m always looking for new ideas!
How To Do Dynamic Shelving
My process of finding a series of strategies that worked for us took a lot of trial and error, which I’ll detail below in the hopes that some of the things I’ve tried may help spark inspiration for others. I also created this TikTok to show the switch from Static to Dynamic in Action:
Detailing The Development Process
Originally, Before Weeding
This picture is the epitome of Static Shelving. This is the ultimate “before” picture and shows how uninspiring and inaccessible rows of book spines can be for browsers. No visual chunking or directionals, signage, or front-facing covers to help browsers successfully navigate the collection. This strategy was not especially successful in inspiring or empowering our students to the extend I knew they could be empowered.
This is how our fiction section looked after I had done some initial weeding & shifting work on it. This is after it had been initially weeded, and after I had completed the first phase of our genrefication (each book had a genre label on it at this point but was still in standard full collecton author-abc order). Its still very much Static Shelving, though it was in the beginning stages of evolution. The signs at the top list the genre label indicators. I had thought having the colored labels on the spines would be enough to help students find books they would want, I did not originally intend to chunk the books and organize them fully by genre, but when I had it this way I did not see any positive impact on circulation or browsing. Even with the colored labels present, my students were not finding the collection more accessible and were not finding it more successful for easy browsing. I knew at this point that I would need to take my dynamic shelving much, much further and that weeding and genre labels were not going to be far enough.
Dabbling With Dynamic Shelving
In this picture you can see the beginning stages of my initial attempts at trying something different. This was a “new books” display section I carved out from our shelves via weeding and shifting. This was my initial inspiration from my lurking at bookstores, because I saw that bookstores always had those giant “new arrivals” displays right when you walk in the front doors, and their displays were always almost entirely front-facing books. So I tried this, carving out the first four bookcases in our fiction section for a “new arrivals” display and then the rest of the collection remained in traditional Static Shelving order (as you can see on the far right side of the picture).
In my display area you can see that I played with the Dynamic Shelving strategies of front facing, color background, and genre-fying. The success of this display area is what gave me the confidence to finally fully jump into the deep end of the genrefication process, because I found that this small display area was so popular with students and I wanted to replicate it throughout the rest of the collection. It was at this point that I finally went ahead and shifted the whole fiction collection into genre organization.
Moving to True Genre-fication + Dabbling With Dynamic Shelving
In order to shift the entire fiction collection into proper genre chunks I had to lose the “new books” display area (I needed those bookcases for the fantasy genre) but I knew I wanted to still incorporate some of the Dynamic Shelving strategies that had been successful in my “new books” display area. So I decided to find a fun pattern wrapping paper in the color of each genre, and I covered the back panel of each bookcase with its genre’s color paper. I knew this would be aesthetically pleasing but would also be practical in that it would help visually delineate the start and stop of each genre area for browsers, and would also make shelving a bit easier since you would just need to match the color sticker on the spine with the color of the bookcases. Plus, I mean, its just fun and pretty. It just is lol.
You can see that I left the eye level bookshelf empty on each bookcase when I initially completed the genre-chunking. This was my first attempt at incorporating the Dynamic Shelving strategy of more front-facing books throughout the collection. Since front-facing books are so successful in getting checked out, I didn’t want to put them on the top shelf as is commonly done, I wanted to capitalize on the strategy by putting front-facers on eye level. The picture above is from over the summer, so there aren’t any front-facers on those shelves at the time I took the picture, but there would have been whenever students were in the room.
Continuing to Dabble
In the picture above you can see that I was continuing to tweak my strategies. You can see how I began having front-facers on the eye level shelf of each bookcase, and you can see that I weeded the genres down enough to make room for about 2 front-facers on each shelf as well. This combination of strategies was pretty successful, and circulation absolutely started to surge, but I couldnt shake the feeling that there was still more I could do. That I could still take it further. The shelves were improving but they still weren’t especially VOCAL or inspiring. They still felt a bit “meh” when I compared them to what I was seeing in bookstores and on Bookstagram/Booktok. It was at this point that I went full-on Dynamic Shelving. I decided we just needed MORE. MORE. MORE. More of all the strategies I’d only dipped my toes into so far. More color. More genres. More front-facers. More visual chunking and indications. Just more. And that unleashing of restraint led to this:
Full On Dynamic Shelving
I coated the ends of the bookcases in more color and I let go of the need for perfect order and perfect control to focus more on visual appeal and browser-friendly order. In series-heavy genres that meant letting go of the “rows of sines” in favor of more groupings, stacking, chunking to visually indicate series. It meant as many front-facers as possible to show off the GORGEOUS cover art. It sometimes meant having books in “not quite perfect author ABC order” (though they are generally still pretty close). Sometimes I set the series in spine out order, but other times they are stacked on top of each other, with just the first book in the series front-facing and slightly in front of the rest. Other times the first book in the series sits proudly and front-facing atop the rest of the books in its series. These strategies help students to more visually “see” where the series are versus the standalones, and it also helps them see which series have book #1 available and which don’t (since book 1 of most series is front-facing, they can see the empty displays that indicate when book #1 is not available).
Series stacking and grouping on the shelves also helps students decide if they want to tackle a certain series because they can easily and quickly see how long it is. Some students are looking for standalones or duologies, while others are looking for a big binge. This shelving strategy helps them be able to identify those things. You may also notice that I take the opportunity to front-face and visually highlight as many diverse books as possible, using the shelf space wisely to bring awareness and attention to authors and titles that might otherwise fall under notice in favor of the more popular and famous authors/titles. Those “already famous” ones I will often leave spines-out to allow more shelf space to front-face less famous titles, and those by and about historically excluded peoples. Intentional space usage is an important aspect of our diversity and equity goals, and we typically see at least 50% of our checkouts now being “diverse” books. That’s a pretty awesome result to see!
Permanent Rotating Displays
Another strategy I use for Dynamic Shelving, is heavily visual rotating permanent or semi-permanent displays. One of the highest circulating books in many high school libraries are the LGBTQIA+ rep books. But, as we know (hopefully), it is not best practice to separate LGBTQIA+ books out of the general collection (or the regular genres) in order to create a segregated “Queer Books” genre/section. Nor should we be putting rainbow stickers on the spines of all the Queer books. How, then, can we proudly and visibly celebrate and promote these books, and make it easier for students seeking them to find them? I utilize a permanent rotating display that students affectionately call our “Big Gay Display.” I commandeered two unused bookcases near our fiction collection and turned them into a display space, and this is where we always have SOME (some but not all, this is very important to clarify so you do not think this is a Queer books “genre.” It is not. 90% of our Queer rep books are always within their actual genre locations) of our Queer rep books on display. We don’t put the same books on display here at all times, but instead rotate it regularly to ensure that different Queer rep books get a chance to be highlighted, while most of them remain available within their actual genre locations, as is best practice.
Don’t forget that you can incorporate Dynamic Shelving strategies in nonfiction too! This is not just a “fiction section” thing. You can see that I use many of the same strategies in our nonfiction area as I do in our fiction area.
Small table displays are another strategy I *borrowed* from bookstores, as I noticed that bookstores, especially the BIG one, utilize small table displays frequently and to great effect. I read that the BIG bookstore chain used to use large tables but made the switch to smaller tables because market research indicated that smaller groupings and chunks were more successful and manageable for browsers. So I decided to buy a few cheap folding card tables, covered them in bright table cloth, and sprinkle some around the library. I usually have a “popular on booktok” table, a “when you don’t really like to read” table, and a few miscellaneous others. Its also nice to be able to have book displays in the areas of the library that don’t have shelves.
Displays Where Ever There’s Room
Don’t have actual display tables? You can always put books on display all around the room, whereever there’s a flat surface. This is our “new nonfiction” display which I just put out on our long work tables for maximum visability.
Vertical Space Displays
You can use your walls for virtual displays, too, even if you can’t install slats or shelving or anything like that. You know those “command hooks” with the sticky backs? Well, did you know there are “command shelves” like the ones seen in the picture above? They stick right to pretty much any material, and they are just big enough to sit a book in. And, they are not expensive! Yay!
Find Ways to Let Your Shelves & Books Talk
Another way to incorporate Dynamic Shelving is to find ways to let your books speak for themselves. I have speech bubbles with the opening lines that I like to sit in the books to grab people’s attention (above). You can also incorporate shelf-talkers (seen below). While we do judge a book by its cover, the cover isnt always enough to give a real sense of the book, so adding some “talkers” can help make the books sing to browsers!
Rework Outdated Library Furniture
Try not to let any library areas go to waste, sometimes an old space can be cheaply and easily updated and made relevant again with just a bit of creative thinking and some elbow grease. Below you’ll see how I took our old, and unused, magazine shelves shelves and revamped them to function as a much needed graphic novel shelving area!
These shelves annoyed me because the slope of the magazine shelves were not really useful for anything other than magazines. I decided to break out my trusty drill and investigate whether the shelves could be adjusted to work better for books. When I removed the screws holding the bookshelves to the wall I saw that on the sides there were screws holding the “tilted magazine shelves” in place. It ended up being super simple to remove those screws and re-screw the shelves in at angles that could be useful for regular books!
I was further inspired by the tilted magazine shelves to actually reuse some of the “tilt shelves” to more easily display the comics and graphic novels, which are often softcover and very thin, which makes them difficult to display in the same way I do standard-size novels. So I took two of the “tilt shelves” and reinstalled them on the top of the bookcases, and on the top shelve, but at a slighter tilt than they were at for the magazines. As you can see below, this ended up being AWESOME and made these old magazine-only shelves pretty much perfect for graphic novel shelving. And it didnt cost me anything other than a bit of creative re-thinking and a smidge of elbow grease.
Below you’ll see that I re-imagined another outdated and unused library space. These cubbies were originally used in the past for backpack cubby storage. Nowadays our students are expected to keep their belongings with them in the library, so these backpack cubbies aren’t used for backpacks anymore. These cubbies stood empty and unused for a while until I started to try to think of ways the space could be reclaimed.
The solution I came up with? Manga shelving wall! Each cubby provides a nice little niche for different manga series, and theres enough height that I could place individual series signs and descriptions in each cubby. It creates a nice graphic visual as well as being functional. Gotta love that!