You can view my first Dynamic Shelving post here:
What is Dynamic Shelving?
Dynamic shelving is just the name I give to the series of shelving/display/organization strategies I implement to increase our collection’s accessibility and browsability. I’ve found the traditional method of organizing and shelving books (i.e. shelves of rows of book spines in strict DDC order) to be pretty uninspiring and inaccessible, at least to the students I’ve served. While these archaic methods probably made a lot of sense from the librarian and shelver’s POV, there’s little doubt that they leave much to be desired for the average modern library user.
I decided to change things up pretty early in my career, as it only took a year or so of watching as students came to the library for books but continued to leave empty handed, for me to realize something had to change. I began touring other libraries, bookstores, and other types of stores to study the methods they used to merchandise, organize, and structure things. I was looking for ways to make the library more accessible, more enjoyable, and easier to navigate INDEPENDENTLY, for my students. My ultimate goal is for any student to be able to walk into the library and be able to navigate independently navigate the space successfully. I don’t want them to walk into the space and feel overwhelmed, confused, lost, and uncertain of how to proceed. These kinds of feelings cause barriers of access to the resources, barriers I want to remove. This is the purpose that has led me to developing my style of library organization & merchandising, what I call Dynamic Shelving.
Addressing the Questions
Since writing my first blog post on Dynamic Shelving, to introduce the concept, its been shockingly well-received. It is, in fact, my most viewed blog post, by a landslide, and still receives hundreds of views every day. There has also been some skepticism or questions from other library workers too, usually concern about how my strategies might make it harder on the shelvers than traditional “static” shelving does. To that I say this: I’d rather organize things in ways that are easier for the library users, even if that means its a little more complicated for the library worker, because the library worker can be trained whereas the average library user doesn’t have that privilege and must be able to navigate the space independently sans formal training.
But I’d also say that its really not more complicated or time consuming. Any extra time that we devote to shelving is easily balanced by the fact that we now rarely need devote time to creating lavish and elaborate (and constantly changing) formal displays. Because my style of organizing and shelving causes the whole library to function as a display. So much of our collection is front-faced (covers facing outward) and chunked up/displayed, I actually find the shelving to be much quicker than it was when we had traditional static style shelving. Why? Because its easier to plop a returned book into an open front-facing spot than it was to slide the books in its area over to create a gap for each returned book to go.
FAQ: “How does anyone find anything if the books aren’t shelved in a particular order?”
This is probably the second most common question I get about Dynamic Shelving. I get asked this all the time and it always puzzles me a bit because Dynamic Shelving is not synonymous with “pure chaos”! The books are still in a sensical order, and students can still search for a specific book in the OPAC, which will still tell them exactly where to find that specific book via the designated sublocation and spine label. Its exactly the same process as in any other library I’ve ever been in. Embracing Dynamic Shelving means adding more discoverability to a collection, not less!
For example, while the books in our Fantasy section may be displayed/organized according to a variety of Dynamic Shelving techniques, they’re still in call # ABC order within the fantasy section. Students are still going to find the Riordan books on the shelf before the Stiefvater books. The collection is still in almost perfect author ABC order, the Dynamic Shelving techniques just might mean there’s color coding and various series stacking strategies (see below for specific examples), or that, depending on the way things are fitting on any given shelf at a particular moment, its possible that the Stiefvater books might come just before a book by Stevens, instead of after.
So its all still easily findable, just a tiny bit more loose than traditional shelving would demand, and with far more front-faced books on each shelf. Just a bit more room for flexibility, logical sorting, & display, rather than super strict adherence to archaic rules and traditions. For example, technically libraries typically sort the books first by author and then by title…. but when you have a bunch of series this is a terrible way to shelve things for the library user. Imagine all of Rick Riordan’s books organized only alphabetically by title instead of FIRST by series and then in numerical series order. It doesn’t really make sense, and yet that’s indeed the way libraries often organize them. Why? Organizing this way might be “correct” according to traditional shelving “rules,” but it assumes that the library user already knows the title of the next book in the series. But what about when they don’t know? Isn’t this an unnecessary barrier to access? Doesn’t it lead to a hopeful reader frequently checking out the wrong book and then being stuck having to do more research and return it to try again, instead of enabling them to just get right to reading? These are the kinds of barriers and hurdles I’m trying to minimize and smooth away for our library users. To save them time, aggravation, and stress. To make the resources more accessible to the average user.
There has to be room for flexible thinking and approaches to shelving and organizing a library. That’s what Dynamic Shelving is about, its just a philosophy that helps guide me to keep the needs of the library user at the forefront of organization/shelving/display choices.
The Rest of this Post
In the rest of this post I’m going to try to provide some clear guides and suggestions for some methods and strategies you can try out if you’re so inclined. And remember, its not an “all or nothing” situation, you can pick and choose which strategies to try out in your space, and of course can use my ideas as jumping off points to springboard into your own ideas & twists. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to embrace Dynamic Shelving, its really just about building a library philosophy which seeks to make things easier and quicker for the library users. What that means and how it looks will likely vary greatly from library to library! Have fun with it, and remember that a library is a living organism, nothing we do should be considered “permanent,” so there’s no fear about “messing up” or “getting it wrong.” Its just about trying things, seeing if they work, and adapting as you go in response to the outcomes.
Dynamic Shelving Strategies & Examples
Chunking is one of my favorite Dynamic Shelving strategies, and it can be done in A LOT of different ways. I’m a fan of chunking because I think that humans pretty easily suffer from “choice overload,” and actually do better when confronted with smaller, more tightly focused collections to choose from. When confronted with long stretches of anonymous book spines, I think its actually hard for most people not to become overwhelmed and stressed. During my first year at a high school library I watched as countless students approached our traditionally organized fiction collection, stared at the looooonnngg wall of books for a while and wandered through the A’s & B’s for a bit, before ultimately leaving either empty handed, or only after dispiritedly grabbing an old favorite for the 10th time because they simply couldn’t figure out how to make an informed choice amongst a too large, too anonymous, non-logically grouped collection of books. There are tons of ways you can incorporate “chunking” into your library’s organization. Here are a few specific ideas you could try:
Large Scale “Chunking” w. Organization System Changes
Genrefying, Ditching (or Adapting) Dewey, etc
One large scale way to chunk a collection is to reconsider the overall organizational system. You’ll see that most libraries do this to some extent. I’ve never been in a public or school library that was really in perfect DDC order. For years now its been common for libraries to play with adapted versions of DDC by pulling fiction out of the DDC’s 800s (which is where they’re technically supposed to go), pulling biographies out of the DDC’s 900s, pulling graphic novels out of the 700s, etc. Chunking has been going on for a long time and its totally OK to do it, and its totally OK to do it in smaller bits like those listed above, or in larger initiatives such as genrefying or ditching DDC altogether. Whatever works best for your library users, its all good and its all ok to try. There are no DDC police, and there is no such thing as a sacrosanct library organization system (GASP! I know, right? I’m such a rebel). If pulling sections out, or re-organizing things in some way, is going to make the library more accessible to your library users, do it.
I personally have found that when the chunks are chosen according to demonstrated need/interest from your specific library user community, the library’s circulation tends to soar as a result. Library users become better able to navigate the collection via the smaller chunks. Choice fatigue is lessened, and locating a starting point, and eventually a book of interest, is easier. This kind of chunking, such as is used in genre-fication or dewey adaptations/ditching, makes the collection feel more accessible, and less overwhelming, basically making it more approachable. Library users feel more confident in their own ability to navigate the space when things are chunked up into smaller mini-collections of common interests and needs.
You can read more in depth about specific types of re-organization on my genre-fication blog posts and my Ditching Dewey blog posts, if so inclined.
Smaller Scale “Chunking” with Displays
Another way to “chunk” a larger collection is through different display techniques! This strategy may feel more manageable than full scale collection reorganization, and may also be a great option when space is tight or limited. Displays do not need to all be large, formal, and tied to a specific month/holiday/etc. They can be all different kinds of shapes and sizes. Displays offer a method for promoting/spotlighting different resources and also of providing smaller scale tightly curated mini-collections. This is a good strategy for promoting books that may not be as famous or well-known, and also is a great way of providing smaller areas for library users to peruse, so they don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the larger collection. There is definitely a reason that bookstores have soooo many small table displays and wall displays all over their stores…. small, topic/type specific mini-collections (i.e. displays) CLEARLY work for browsers. Here are a few types of display strategies you might try:
Small Table Displays
I’m a big fan of small table displays. I bought a few small folding tables (card tables) and covered them with colorful tablecloths. Easy peasy! Our “popular on booktok” table is always popular, and I have fun trying to come up with rotating ideas for the other small tables throughout the space. These are great because they’re quite small, usually only gonna hold about 9-12 books, and they’re easy but effective. The bookcovers facing straight up at the browser’s eyes is great for marketability… we do judge books by their covers, after all! I get ideas for topics by browsing other bookstores or bookstagram accounts, and usually switch them up 2-3 times per year.
Sometimes you might have random empty or under-used bookcases throughout your space. You can use these for pop-up or even semi-permanent display areas! Deck it out with colorful backgrounds, good signage, and high-interest books for an easy display space. I’ve seen some librarians remove a few of the shelves to give themselves more area for in-shelf signage or décor, you can definitely have fun with it! You can even add small shelf-talkers or other engagers/informationals like QR codes to booktalks or book trailer videos, etc.
Tabletop Display Racks
Another option that might be good for libraries where space is tight, and there isn’t a lot of room for using bookcases or floor display stands, is to incorporate small tabletop display stands to offer super small little curated display collections. This is a small merchandising stand I bought and placed right on our circulation desk, next to our checkout station. Its in a super high traffic area, its low maintenance, it works! I think this little stand is technically for merchandising cosmetics something? It definitely was not actually sold as a “book stand” or “book display” or anything like that. Most of the actual “book display stands” I could find were quite expensive, and I was wanting to buy a few affordable options, so I thought outside the box a bit and shopped around until I found things that would work. I do not have the link to this one, but you can find things like this by searching online for “counter merchandise rack/stand.”
Floor Standing Display Stands
Depending on the way your space is laid out, floor-standing displays might be another good option to explore. They’re great because you can place them in those odd bookshelf-free areas, and again, the fact that they are small and can’t hold that many books is actually a great thing. It really helps challenge us to curate super small mini-collections and to think of clever and eye-catching methods for promoting the mini-collections. My “They’re a 10, but…” display was VERY successful, and really quite easy. I set it up right next to our library’s doors, and just included a clear sign as well as a small “shelf talker” for each book. You can find and reuse my “they’re a 10 but…” cards for free on this blog post. This display rack is another one that isn’t actually intended to be a “book display.” Its actually sold as a “brochure rack” or a “magazine rack” but I checked the measurements and realized that with a few tiny DIY modifications it would work for displaying books.
On the Shelf
Next we’re going to talk about some of the “on the shelf” Dynamic Shelving strategies you might opt to play with or employ. These are the different ways you can group or display the books directly in their usual shelf spots. These are basically some of the alternatives to the typical “rows of spines” technique. The books can be in spine label order(ish) without having to be in “spine facing out” rows!
Bins are definitely a shelving technique that is really taking off in recent years, especially in collections that have a lot of picture and children’s books. Those books can tend to be very skinny or even flimsy, and many librarians have had enough with the ever present struggle of keeping skinny or flimsy books in traditional “rows of spines” on the shelf. That strategy doesn’t really allow for easy or successful browsing, and it really does allow a lot of great books to be overlooked or missed entirely by browsers. Its even hard for shelvers to get those books back in their right spots.
One solution to this has been to embrace the use of “bins.” I’ve been noticing an uptick in the number of librarians I’m seeing explore this strategy and this year I decided to take a swing at it too. I’ve opted to try a “bin” strategy with our new comic book collection, because trying to keep the skinny paperback comics on the shelves has become a ridiculous pain, and it doesn’t allow the books to be browsable or marketed successfully to my browsers. I opted to try creating a “bin” for each comic arc or superhero, and that’s how they’re being placed on the shelf. The bins are labeled and are in alphabetical order by superhero/comic name, and then each comic’s spine label indicates which bin it belongs in. This has made it much easier for us to quickly re-shelve the books, but more importantly has made it easier for our browsers to see what is available on the shelves!
Other popular ways to use bins are in a children’s book nonfiction collection, by using bins for popular nonfiction research or interest topics (i.e. all the shark nonfiction goes in one bin with a shark label on the front, all the snakes go in another bin, etc). I’ve seen librarians start using bins for popular picture book or early reader series, authors, topics, etc too.
Another big strategy for incorporating Dynamic Shelving is to include more “front-facing” books on each shelf, either instead of rows of spines, or at least to break up the rows of spines. Despite that old adage, we really do judge books on their covers. And honestly, rightly so! Cover artists are hired, after all, to design covers for books, for the purpose of helping market the book visually to readers. A good book cover can give a sense of the tone, plot, vibe, etc of the book. Its an incredible shame, and a true hindrance, to book promotion and marketability, for the covers to be hidden away. This is one of the biggest challenges with traditional library shelving, because those rows and rows of spines just don’t allow for enough of the book to be visible to the average browser. The rows of spines shelving works fine for people who know exactly which book they want, and just need a super efficient way of finding specific books. But for browsers? Totally different story. Browsers NEED to be able to see more covers. There are a lot of different ways to incorporate more front-facing books on your library shelves. I’ll demonstrate a few methods below, but I’ll also advise you to tour bookstores occasionally to see which strategies they employ for this, because you’ll notice a lot of clever methods. End caps, slat walls, command hook shelves, etc are often used to add front-facing displays in otherwise shelf-free areas. I usually wander around bookstores to see how they do it and then I try to re-create their methods DIY style in our library lol.
- book easels
- Book easels are one method for adding front-facing books to a shelf. I don’t tend to use them but I know many librarians do!
- metal bookends
- One of the best and most efficient way of propping books up on a shelf is to just use those metal bookends most of us have in the library! Simply open a book and slide the metal bookend into the center of the book, and that will prop it up. I use this method a lot because its easy and because the bookends can serve dual purpose of being sort of “book easels” and, of course, also bookends as needed lol.
- View this tiktok video to see how to use metal bookends in lieu of actual book easels: View on TikTok
- cardboard boxes
- This is a new technique I’m trying and it was inspired by my recent wandering around Barnes and Noble, where I noticed they use these hollow cardboard boxes behind books to prop them forward, and front-facing, on the shelves. I searched online for something similar and found that you can get shipping boxes or gift boxes in almost any size imaginable, and in bulk. I’ve started playing around with both small boxes for individual books and also long boxes to slip behind an entire bookshelf’s worth of books, and so far I’m happy with the results!
- Tilted shelves
- Tilted shelves are awesome, though hard to come by if you have an older library I’d imagine. Usually they only gave us tilted shelves for magazines, but I think they’re actually great to have in general since it makes it super easy to display books front-facing. I actually DIY’d some for our graphic novel area, and it has been awesome to have them.
Another strategy of Dynamic Shelving that I like to employ on the shelves is “stacking,” which is actually a combination of “chunking” and “front-facing.” Basically, instead of having the books in rows of spines, I like to take books that are in series, or for which we have duplicates, and I like to “stack them” on the shelf. They’re still in their typical place on the shelf, still in their spine label ABC order, they’re just stacked up or bundled together in groups on the shelf. I like this strategy for a few reasons; one reason is that it saves space, especially with longer series, and it also “breaks up” the rows of spines in a way that makes each shelf seem a bit more “chunked” and less overwhelming that it otherwise would. The space that is saved thanks to stacking also allows me more room for more front-faced books. So that’s a win-win. The other reason I’m a fan of stacking series and duplicates together is that it provides a quick visual cue to browsers to let them know that they’re looking at a series versus a standalone, or that the book they’re looking at has duplicates available (this is something our students often want because they frequently want to choose a book which has enough copies for both them and their friend/s to get the same book).
I like to stack duplicates together, much like you’ll see at most bookstores, for a few reasons. Firstly, it provides a nice and attractive looking “display” on the shelf. Secondly, I think there’s an odd sort of psychology in humans that makes us think a book must be good if the library has multiple copies of it (I have no proof of this, it just seems like the books I buy multiple copies of seem to get chosen more often lol). And finally, most importantly, this visual cue is helpful to the students who are looking for a book that has enough copies for their friend or friend group to all read the same book. This is a common thing at our school, because our ELA does a lot of lit circles and independent choice reading, and many students want to choose the same book as their friend/s. Having the duplicates stacked up can also save space sometimes, depending on how many duplicates you have of a certain title.
You’ll see that I try out a couple different types of series stacking, usually its based mostly on whim or space. I usually try to always have book #1 of a series front-facing (usually on a metal bookend) and then the rest of the books in that series are either stacked underneath book #1, or just behind book #1, or sometimes right next to book #1. I like stacking series and duplicates because it is a space-saver on the shelf, and this saved space allows me more room for more front-facers.
Bringing it all together in one bookcase
In this picture below you can see what it looks like when its all brought together onto an entire bookcase. You’ll notice several different methods and styles throughout one bookcase, as I like to have fun with it and play around, not always stacking or sorting in entirely the same way, and not always stacking or bundling every series or duplicates. You’ll notice that there are some areas that are still traditionally shelved (for example the top bookshelf on the right hand side has several different Gaiman titles in “row of spines” style). Space requirements don’t often allow me to have EVERY book front-faced or stacked, and that’s ok! None of this is about perfection, its just about trying to increase browsability where I can and when I can. And don’t forget its not an “all or nothing” situation, you can do this in a smaller scale approach. Rather than trying to do every bookcase, or an entire bookcase, you can shoot for doing just one shelf on most bookcases, or on a random bookcase here or there. And you can rotate how and when and to what extent you try these things. I originally started by doing one shelf (the shelf at eye level) on every bookcase and then slowly grew it out until I was able to do it on most shelves of all bookcases. That took time, practice, and much weeding to work up to.
Clear signage and navigation is another important component to providing an accessible, and independently navigable, collection to our library users. In the last several years I’ve really begun to put a lot of time into creating and implementing various types of clear signage and other navigation assistance strategies that range in scope from broad directional (fiction vs nonfiction, etc) down to increasingly more narrow informationals such as signs for each bookcase to indicate what kinds of books are on each bookcase, shelf signs that indicate which call #s can be could on each shelf, bin signs, and even for individual books themselves such as via series labels and shelf talkers. Again, since my goal is to make the library as easy to navigate independently as possible, I try to take note of which things are stumping my users the most, which things they’re needing to ask about the most, and then I try to develop directionals, informationals, signs, etc to help smooth away some of the most common barriers.
You can get most of my signage for free on this blog post: My Library Signage
Top of Bookcase signs
I create custom signs using canva and rasterbator.net for the top of every bookcase. These signs will tell the library user exactly which kinds of books, and which call #s, they can find on any given bookcase. It also helps our shelvers, of course! I use a combination of simple terms alongside relevant imagery, and bold colors, to create each sign so that it is hopefully helpful to a wide variety of learners. It also doesn’t cost me anything but some time, because I create them for free in canva and then use rasterbator to print them to the size I need, then tape them together and to get them propped up on the bookcase top I just tape them to two metal bookends.
In our nonfiction section I have also begun using a sign for every shelf, to indicate what kinds of books can be found on that shelf, as well as the call #. This was pretty time consuming, as you can imagine, but I just worked on it a little bit at a time, starting with the most in-demand areas, or areas of high interest that I thought weren’t getting as much attention as they might if students could easily identify what type of books were there.
One of the most common questions I used to get from students was “which book in the series is this?” or “which is book #3 of this series” and so on. Some day my dreams will come true and publishers will begin consistently providing the series info at the top of every book spine, but until that day becomes a reality I have opted to add this info to every book. Some day Follett will make my other dream come true and add a function that allows us to run series label reports for series info just like we can for spine labels and barcode labels, but in the meantime I just make my own in a Word label template and print them myself. A bit time consuming to do but totally, TOTALLY worth the effort. Having the series info clearly posted on each book, in a consistent spot on the book, makes it much easier for students to independently navigate to the book they need. It also helps them identify whether a book is part of a series or a standalone, and it also makes it easier for me during collection development, to see which series I should be checking up on for new releases.
You can see that I opt to put the series info at the top of the spine. I also opt to type the name of the series first and then place the number below. This is really helpful when you have authors that have a lot of different series. I don’t know how I’d keep the Bardugo, Clare, Maas, and Riordan series organized sensibly if it weren’t for adding these kinds of series labels at the top. These labels also help me keep the books grouped together by series and in the right series orders on the shelves, too.
Dealing with Roman Numerals
I don’t know about ya’ll, but most of my students don’t know the Roman Numeral translations and really struggle when the books (usually its manga) use those instead of the Hindu-Arabic numerals they’re more familiar with. I was noticing so many students coming up to ask me “which number is this” so I finally caved and started adding a number label over any manga or other series that use Roman Numerals. I don’t usually need to put series labels on manga books because manga publishers usually are actually really good about clearly labeling the book’s spines with their series number, but when its a Roman Numeral I’ve started covering them with the Hindu-Arabic numeral instead, and its has made a big difference to the students and their ability to independently navigate the collection successfully.
The final piece of my Dynamic Shelving strategy to talk about is what I think of as “the eye-catchers.” These are the different things you add to the shelves to “catch the eye” or interest of the browser. These can range pretty broadly and you can really have fun with these, the point of them is just to add further bits of engagement and interest intended to help direct the browser, or to help them make a decision about where to look or which book to take.
Color & Fun Patterns
Color and print are probably the “eye catchers” I’m most known for, as I’ve long been in the habit of color coding our collection and using those colors to cover the bookcases and shelves. Bright pops of color on the bookcase edges help the browser denote which section they are in and notice when they’ve wandered into a new section. Colorful and fun prints on the backs of the bookcases helps provide further visual interest to pull the browser in, and also helps provide a nice background to make the bookcovers “pop” against when front-faced. If you look through the pictures on this blog post you’ll see tons of examples of how I use color on my bookcases, signage, and labels (and decor). Students and colleagues report that this tendency makes the library feel warm, happy, welcoming, and fun. Sounds like a win to me!
Stuffies / Related “toys” or items
Another type of “eye catcher” I’ve seen other librarians use are stuffed animals or other toys/items which relate to the section of books. For example, perhaps in your nonfiction animal section you might have a snake stuffed animal sitting on top of the bookcase where the snake books can be found. Or you might have a trainset on the bookcase where the train and transportation books can be found. Or perhaps you have an awesome LEGO castle or dragon figurine which you place on the bookcases where your fantasy section is. Toys and items like this can be great additions and even supplements to clear signage. Even if someone doesn’t know the word “fantasy,” they are probably going to understand that if they see dragon and wizard figurines in one area of the library that they can expect the books in that area to be about magical type things. I haven’t played much with toys or items like this, but its an area I’m looking to play with more going forward. For example, I have a few Halloween type decorations that I might add to our Horror section in a more permanent way, such as some of our plastic spiders and other ghoulish items.
Shelf talkers are another great type of “eye catcher” that librarians often use on their shelves, to help call attention to certain books, or to help provide “teasers” or “hooks” that may help a browser see that a certain book might be of interest to them. I created little shelf-talkers by creating a little rectangle in Canva and then printing them out and cutting them double the size, so that I could fold them in half and stick one half under a book, causing the other half to hang down over the shelf a bit. I have terrible hand-writing, so mine are pretty ugly but still, it works! And I notice that the books that I add good shelf-talkers to absolutely tend to get checked out more often as a result.
Woah, that was a shockingly long post! I struggle with brevity as always lol. But hopefully this thorough explainer functions as a helpful practical guide for those of you that are interested in implementing more Dynamic Shelving techniques. Have fun! And remember, don’t focus on what you can’t do, but instead on what you can do. You might not be able to recreate everything you see here, and it might not make sense for you to in any case. Just like I don’t recreate everything I see others do! Not everything works for every collection and that is ok! Sometimes space or time restrictions are going to be a reality to deal with. Its ok to think small scale if need be. Picking one shelf per bookcase to do front facing and stacking on, or one bookcase in the library or a small folding table or two. It doesn’t matter how small scale or large scale you go, the important thing is to keep trying new things to address library user’s needs and to try to always be removing as many barriers of access as we can.