Circulation Surge: Want Your Books To Fly Off the Shelves? Try these Ideas.

We asked K–12 and public librarians to share their strategies—from genrefying to broadcasting booktalks.

Illustration by Irmun/iStock


When Jennifer Brooks became a librarian at the Donnell Middle School in Findlay, OH, the few graphic books in the library were spread throughout the nonfiction and fiction collections. “I received a lot of requests from students, so I gave graphic novels their own section,” she says. Students started gathering there every period, and she bought more. Circulation jumped. “Previously, [kids] would check out something to appease their teacher and never even open it up,” says Brooks. Now, they’re excited to come to the library.

Brooks decided to reorganize her library’s entire fiction collection and saw her circulation rise 80 percent in the first month. When Julie Boatner, library media specialist at Claymont Elementary School in Ballwin, MO, divided her collection into easy-to-understand sections, she also saw a circulation leap, from 14,000–17,000 checkouts per year to 22,000–26,000.

Circulation numbers are one vital measure of how busy a library is. A robust circulation figure shows stakeholders that the library is a valuable resource to your school or community. On average, students check out 1.1 books a week from their school libraries, according to a 2016 National Education Association report—or 110 books per 100 students.

To boost circulation, of course, you need to get more kids excited about reading. We asked K–12 and public librarians from around the country to share their strategies—from genrefying and weeding to broadcasting booktalks and playing up themed-reading weeks.

Genrefy For those eager to genrefy, Boatner emphasizes the importance of getting to know students’ reading preferences and devising a solid plan for your particular community.

“I always ask myself, ‘Where would my students look for this book?’ and ‘Which genres/topics do my students seek out in their time here?’” Boatner says. “That’s why Space Case by Stuart Gibbs is in the mystery section instead of sci-fi, and books about Australia are under countries and not continents.”

“Other librarians may make different decisions based on their students and curriculum,” she adds. “That’s what I love about genrefying. It is personal to each community, and it’s flexible enough to change genres if they don’t work out in the first location.”

Brooks created seven categories in her fiction section, based mainly on genres assigned by the literature teachers (for example, historical or realistic fiction) and topics students requested (e.g., sports). She assigned each category a color: Historical fiction is green, so each title in that category gets a green spine sticker. There’s green paper on the shelf interiors, plus signage on the front of each shelf and the side of the row. Brooks also marks the genre in her computer system.

After Boatner reorganized her library, “kids were trying lots of books that they never knew existed,” she says. “Now, they’ve settled in and are reading many more books through to completion.” The process can be time-consuming, so she suggests finding volunteers, including teens seeking community service credit and parents. The Future Ready Librarians Facebook group is a good source for genrefication ideas, she adds.

Strong signage is required for younger readers. When signs are big and clear, they can better point students toward popular series or genres. Kandis Lewis-Thomas, media specialist at the Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry, a K–5 school in Flowery Branch, GA, organized titles and series into special areas: Students going to Puppy Place/Kitty Corner know exactly what they’ll find. In the Spooky & Scary Books section, “We can’t keep that area stocked, because the kids go for whatever we put there.”

Streamline Dewey Daunted by the prospect of genrefying her nonfiction collection, Brooks streamlined the Dewey numbers by eliminating figures after the decimal point (all books on Egypt are now 932 instead of 932.015698, for example). She added signage so the shelves make sense to students, including one with the simplified number at each row.

“If a shelf is organized and well thought out, students will explore it,” Brooks says. Signs and shelf decorations clue kids into the larger subject, such as “animals” or “Egypt.” She also uses binders with the topic written on the spine—like reptiles or mammals—as shelf markers to separate books within the category. Brooks avoids putting books on the bottom shelves, where they’re more likely to get overlooked.

Promote audiobooks and ebooks Audiobooks have skyrocketed in popularity, and librarians can capitalize on that upward trend. In 2017, publishers issued 79,000 audiobooks, an almost 34 percent increase from the previous year, according to an Audiobook Publishers Association survey. Audiobook library circulation rose 24 percent, too.

Previously, the audiobook collection at Sugar Hill Academy of Talent and Career Development, a K–5 school in Gainesville, GA, was in a section marked “for teachers only.” Then school librarian Linda Martin moved the audiobooks into the fiction section, paired hardback and audio, and started checking both out to kids. The first year, audiobook circulation went from 23 to 198 annually. Last year, it jumped to 377 for audiobooks—and double that when paired with print books.

Another plus: “I showed students they could read with their eyes and their ears at the same time,” says Martin. Audio also helps students, including English language learners, increase their vocabulary, Martin points out: they’re less likely to skip over words they’re not sure of.

Martin also partnered with a fifth grade teacher to start an eight-week, online ebook book club combining virtual discussion chats with student presentations. The social aspect kept kids engaged, students enjoyed pitching the books online, and classmates checked out the titles, Martin says.

Betsy Hamm, school librarian at the Truesdell Education Campus, a pre-K–8 school in Washington, DC, runs several book clubs, as do other teachers and staff at the school. The newest one, run by the assistant principal, consists of 10 fifth-grade boys who meet after school to read and discuss diverse books, including Bad Boy: A Memoir, by Walter Dean Myers. If a book is a hit with the club, Hamm makes a point of ordering more by the same author.

Jaime LeRoy’s “Blind Date” display gets teens reading.
Photo courtesy of Jaime LeRoy

Get the word out Advertising and outreach is critical, whatever the method. One strategy: “Have your teachers share what they are reading through morning announcements and signs outside their classrooms,” says Lewis-Thomas.

Laura Gardner, teacher librarian at Dartmouth (MA) Middle School, also encourages teachers to share their current reads on posters outside classrooms. Gardner also booktalks all the time—during “commercials” at morning announcements, one-on-one, or on the fly. She always tries to have a couple of books in hand when she meets with a teacher or meets kids to discuss research projects. When a student wants to read a title she’s just chatted up, she checks it out on the spot by writing down the student’s name and the book’s barcode.

Colby Sharp, a fifth grade teacher at Parma (MI) Elementary School and cohost of “The Yarn” podcast, makes booktalks part of most every class. Sharp often discusses what he’s reading as the kids come in. He sets aside five minutes after a break for students to speak to the class. This creates a culture in which kids regularly discuss—and check out—books, he says.

Gardner holds “book buffets” with each ELA class three times a year, at the start of each trimester. She puts books on tables, and students have three minutes per table to look at and discuss them. “Their goal is to find some to check out right then and to add others to their to-be-read list,” Gardner explains, adding that she gives booktalk presentations at the start of each buffet.

Showcasing overlooked titles can be impactful if done the right way. Laura Jenkins, children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library, noticed that parents were reluctant to check out wordless picture book. “I made a special display for these books and included some tips on how to ‘read’ these types of books with a child,” she says. “That was a delightful success that reinforced Every Child Ready to Read practices.”

Make the most of themed weeks Last year during Banned Books Week, Jaime LeRoy, librarian at Northwest High School in Justin, TX, put word bubbles on the cover of most-challenged books listing reasons they were challenged. It piqued students’ curiosity, raised awareness about free speech—and almost all books were checked out.

Other themed weeks provide opportunity, too. Katie Darty, media coordinator at North Buncombe High School in Weaverville, NC, uses $3-or-less prizes like cell-phone accessories, stress balls, and Frisbees to attract students during Teen Read Week (October 7–13) and National Library Week in early April. Students must check out at least one book (up to five a week) to have their names put in a daily drawing. There’s at least one winner per day, plus two weekly grand-prize winners who get items including gift cards or a free printout of their choice on the library’s 3-D printer.

Darty also entices students to the library at lunchtime with trivia games, crafts, and activities, handing out free buttons, bookmarks, and pencils when kids check out books. “Our circulation doubles in October and April compared to previous months,” she notes.

LeRoy creates a popular “blind date” shelf during February around Valentine’s Day. She selects titles from different genres and subjects, wraps them up, and displays them. “If students choose to open one, they are telling me they will read it no matter what,” she says. When they turn it in, they fill out a ‘Rate Your Date’ form and can choose another.

Lewis-Thomas has a similar successful strategy for ebooks. She created Mystery Bookmarks, each with the reading level and QR codes of three books, but not the titles, and displayed them on the circulation desk. Students scan the codes to find out what the mystery books are. They usually read all the books—titles they wouldn’t have picked on their own, Lewis-Thomas adds.

Set up self-checkout Hamm allows fourth through eighth grade students to check books out themselves. “We have a special login for self-checkout that gives the kids access to check in, check out, and renew books, but nothing else,” she explains. “I have a special computer set up for only self-checkout, with a scanner and a binder with everyone’s barcodes, organized by grade. This allows students to get books as they need them, not when they’re scheduled to, which I think increases circulation.” This process can also allow students more privacy.

As long as Hamm is in the library—even if she’s teaching—any eligible student with a pass can check out a book. Hamm also started an open checkout for third- through fifth-graders in the cafeteria: she brings a cart of library books that students can check out while eating breakfast.

Create video trailers Sharp’s fifth-graders turn their booktalks into short films, using the digital portfolio app Seesaw, which lets them share their filmed talks with friends, classmates, and parents. “Kids will read books when other kids give an effective booktalk,” says Sharp—and along the way, students learn the art of editing. “It’s less laborious to watch a video and say, ‘I want to fix that’ than revising a written booktalk. They just keep recording until they are happy with it,” he says.

Students taking AP biology at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, MO, made trailers as part of a book study collaboration between biology teacher Jennifer Damti and library media specialist Dana Kepler. “Trailers are a good marketing tool,” says Kepler. They also inspire other students to make their own.

The students read excerpts of books exploring science concepts, such as Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In groups of three or four, they made trailers, two minutes or shorter, for one book. The students had to storyboard the trailers, include original artwork, graphics, and audio, and credit copyrighted materials. Students had two class periods to discuss, film, and edit their trailers at the library, later posted to social media. The project “improves the quality and relevance of my collection—and gets kids reading,” Kepler says.

Provide bathroom reading When LeRoy was the librarian at Cross Timbers Middle School in Grapevine, TX, she picked 20 titles, designed posters with each book’s cover and a catchy description, and put them in stalls in all student bathrooms and above urinals in the boys’ bathrooms. “After about a week, every single book displayed in the bathrooms was checked out, and most had a hold list of at least 10 students,” she says. LeRoy featured a combination of new and “forgotten” books, and changed them every six weeks. She credits success to strategic placement: the unavoidable colorful posters gave the students something to read while using the restrooms.

Linda Rodgers writes about health and education for a variety of magazines, including Working Mother.

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