Nonfiction’s right to exist (2)

This post as promised, I’ll write a little about physical nonfiction’s right to exist. I had a surprisingly large and positive response to my last post – which is a great incentive to carry on writing.

There are quite a few barriers in creating and maintaining a robust nonfiction section in a school library. Perhaps the two greatest are cost and perception.

In the school I’m just transitioning from, it’s taken 4 years and a lot of money to move up the average age of the nonfiction collection, and it still wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be – not through lack of trying. The simple fact of demand and supply is that some very good nonfiction books and series have just not been re-edited and updated since around 2009. Probably because of the surge in libraries decommissioning their nonfiction collection in favour of either eBooks or “the internet” or databases. That part had to do as much as with cost as with perception. Everyone got on the bandwagon of “Library 2.0” which, between many many great things and a thrust to bring school and public libraries into the new millennium also threw a lot of babies out with the bathwater.

The perception of a lot of teachers is also that it’s not necessary for them to use nonfiction books in the classroom and the perception of many students is that nonfiction books are “hard” or “boring”. Nothing can be further from the truth – particularly for nonfiction books created in recent years that are visually appealing, with great illustrations and design.

Steps to update a nonfiction collection

  1. Run reports per section on any books that haven’t been used in the last 5 or 6 years that were published more than 10 years ago.
  2. Section by section pull out those books and check if they have either
    • Relevance to the curriculum
    • Are high interest (e.g. cooking, art, craft, music, sport)
    • Are “browsable books” i.e. they get looked at in the library but not borrowed (e.g. big photobooks, dictionaries, atlases etc)
  3. Page through the books – even if they are relevant and perhaps interesting if they have a very high text density, the photos are old fashioned and the book layout and design is fatigued the chances that anyone except your most devoted students will bother them is close to zero.
  4. For books that are essential to the curriculum check if there is a replacement version, more up to date edition – order them
  5. Weed ruthlessly and don’t be afraid of gaps / empty spaces – use them to build a case for a transitional budget and to better show-case the great books you do have
  6. Update your DDC and your displays
  7. Repeat process, this time for books published more than 6 years ago etc.

This sound simple but it takes a lot of time. The best thing is to tackle on section at a time and to involve the relevant department. So for example if you’re looking at the 500’s involve the math and science department. Have a look at the curriculum and the available books – including checking science topics that may have meandered to other sections – for example we found a lot of the “energy” books in the 300’s and a lot of human reproduction in the 600’s. Some of the older books I wanted to weed the teachers wanted to keep in the classroom library as aspects were still relevant but not worth saving in the library – so they were weeded and given to the teacher so we didn’t have to worry about them disappearing. Some of the “little” books at a simpler level that were topical were given to learning support or ELA department as they tend to get “lost” in shelves. The maths section was beefed up with with more general interest books (see this post). With our G6 team I spent a lot of effort in decolonising our biographies and memoir section.

For other blog posts on weeding nonfiction from other librarians look at

Relevance of a nonfiction collection

Now we have some practicalities out of the way let’s talk about the relevance of a physical nonfiction collection. I notice when I first arrived I wrote a post asking if nonfiction was still relevant in middle school and I think four years later I’m in a place where I’m ready to argue that it is.

The first reason is the one most often used for the opposition of physical books – “the internet” and “databases”. Well let me tell you they’re both a combination of a terrible time-suck, expensive and generally useless. I do have some choice vocabulary that I’ll avoid using to keep things polite.

The internet – by which most people just mean googling can waste an inordinate amount of time as most students and even teachers do not really know how to search effectively. In addition it’s not the google most grew up with (and that delightful idea of “do no evil” – see this super interesting Atlantic article) it’s now a case of optimisation and pay for view and largely results in articles with a lot of bias, adverts, pop-ups or all of the above. That said, curated lists of sites and links can work (which is why I love Libguides).

Databases – just don’t get me started on how badly designed the UX of most databases geared at middle and high school students are. Britannica, Gale and Infobase are not too bad in their interface, but most of its information is very white British or North American and could do with a good decolonisation clear-out and update. Forget about getting much in the way of perspective if you’re in Asia or Africa.

Then we have the likes of EBSCO who pretend with their Explora interface that they’re nice and friendly and then bite you in the butt with the fact that it all resolves to tiny font and irrelevant articles. Not to mention their eBook collection that is generally old and where you can’t even select on Lexile, age or grade level relevance … for heavens sake how basic a request is that?

Without being particularly extravagant in a digital subscription well resourced library you can be spending over US$100k PER YEAR plus the “taken for granted you’ll accept it” 5-10% cost increases annually (grrr). That will buy a LOT of books – and most of them will remain relevant for at least 4-6 years.

What to buy

If you’re not yet familiar with the work of Melissa Stewart, it’s worth looking into her writings on the types of nonfiction. Starting in 2014 with 7 types of nonfiction, she’s now the author of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction : Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and rightfully says that a well-balanced library includes books in each category.

In fact in my library I like to have one topic covered in different ways by the different types. When I show off our books to students I like to show students that they can have a topic in any which way, just like how they order their eggs in a fancy breakfast buffet. I usually use “The Diary of Anne Frank” as an example. As you can see below I can offer them 15 different “servings” ranging from a page in a collective biography, to a graphic novel, the biography as a picture book, as a playscript, various formats and reading levels and in various languages (only Chinese & Dutch shown here but we have it in others too).

Anne Frank every which way

Besides books that are interest to the curriculum I also will buy anything of high interest – cookbooks were a hot favourite during our last Parent-Student-Teacher conference and my display led to a lot of lovely conversations with families about books and cooking/baking. We have knitting and crochet activities at school so I have quite a few books on different stitches, how to and patterns. We have some future beat-box stars who could guide me to the right books to stock for their passion.

Our student and staff are welcome to request specific books or subjects they’d like to see more of and that often results in some great suggestions.

And then of course picture book nonfiction and memoir and stories based on historical events – yes even for middle school – there is nothing better to introduce a topic – particularly a difficult one, like say “conflict” than some of the amazing sophisticated picture books. They’re like seedlings – you read a story like “The whispering town by Jennifer Elvgren” out loud to a class of G6’s and years later they’re still remembering it and asking for more information about that era in history.

How to find good nonfiction

Now this is surprisingly difficult. I posted the question on both Twitter and our International Librarian Facebook page and besides a good reply from Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (which I knew about) the response was pretty much a combination of “tell us when you find out / it’s hard”.

So GLLI has a #worldkidlit Wednesday / Weekend in their blog where you can find the occasional nonfiction book like “Out of Balance“; “Women Discoverers” and “Do animals fall in love” plus their seriously excellent series of posts edited by Katie Day related to books around the SDGs (read it if you haven’t already, with your order list at hand). I must admit it’s not the place to filter by nonfiction AND world kid lit – something worth getting onto librarythings perhaps and the ability to multi-select tags?

Then there’s the NonFiction Detectives blog which I subscribe to that often comes up with some great titles, many very diverse, albeit with a more North American bent. Again the labeling of blogs doesn’t allow for “AND” searches.

And Melissa Stewart’s blog “Celebrate Science” where in the flipcard view you can find titles related to the various types of nonfiction as well as mentor texts. Unfortunately the subscribe options of the blog are very limited (yahoo? RSS feed?). She suggests the following (in a push out box … I’ve added the links for ease of discovery – and you may notice a trend – they’re all USA based – which is not to say that they do not also represent some amazing and very diverse nonfiction, but they do have a certain world view if you know what I mean).

I also scrounge through SLJ nonfiction section and Kirkus review, Reading Middle Grade, School Reading List and anything IBBY or USBBY

So after seeing the list above which is largely (completely) USA based, I decided to try and find some other nonfiction awards around the world.

Of course the best source for me is my wonderful PLN via facebook and Twitter as well as in person – you know who you are and I love raving about our latest finds when we are together.

Please type a comment to this blog if you have other suggestions.

This blog is getting really long and I’m sure you’re getting to the TWDR point. It’s going to need a 3rd post or it will be another week before I can finish it! Next week – What to do with your nonfiction?

2 thoughts on “Nonfiction’s right to exist (2)

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