Saturday, August 15, 2015

Build Your Classroom Library Without Breaking the Bank!

The year was 2002.  It was my first year as a classroom teacher.  I was 24, motivated to learn, excited to shop to build my classroom library, and armed with a credit card.  This, my friends, was such a dangerous combination at the time.  Over the course of that year, and the couple to follow, I freely spent (charged) money on classroom library books.  I won't divulge how much I charged, but I bet you can imagine.  I bet many of you were in the same situation. Many years later, all of those books are now paid off, and many more books have been purchased and acquired in a more responsible manner.
As I enter my 14th year as a teacher and second as a literacy coach, I now know a better way.  I now know libraries, the most important part of the elementary classroom, can be built without breaking the bank.  In elementary classrooms, the library should be the focal point.  Depending on the grade level, books may be arranged by a combination of genre, author, series, topic, or other categories while being displayed in an inviting and comfortable manner for students to easily and freely access. Reading must be accessible to our kiddos, and classroom libraries must be a known, comfortable, predictably organized, welcoming space for students during the 180 days they spend in any given school year.

With all this being said- you do not need to make the same huge mistake I made as a young teacher.  You do not have to spend hundreds of dollars of your own money on a classroom library. Worse yet, you do not need to charge hundreds of dollars that you don't have on a classroom library.  No teacher, especially a brand new, just out of college teacher, should ever be put in that position.  

Just like Rome, a classroom library will not be built in a day.  It will be continuously built, revamped, rebuilt, replenished, and built again over years.  If you are new to a classroom, a grade level, a school, or are just starting out with little to no books for a classroom library, the tips and tricks below may be just what you need to start the school year and start building your classroom library.

Ways to Build Your Library 
(Without Breaking the Bank) 

Beg & Borrow at Your School
Teachers are the best beggars, borrowers, and improvisers in the world!  We are tasked with changing lives, often times with few resources.  As teachers, we want to help- not just our students, but each other as well.  Send out an email to every teacher at your school asking if they have books to spare.  In my later years in the classroom, I kept boxes and boxes of books in a corner that I did not use- I simply had too many to put out in the library.  Books do no good in a box.  If someone asked, I would have shared.  In fact, I would have given books away.

When I left my third grade classroom to teach fifth grade, I gave the new teacher in that room (new teacher, as in brand new to teaching) 75% of my collected classroom library.  Going into my fifth grade classroom, no longer did I need most of those books- they would have been books without readers in my classroom.  I kept some, but knew I needed a library that appealed to 10 year-olds, which is different than a library that appeals to 8 year-olds.  I was happy to give away those books- and, it sure made that teacher's day!  When I left my fifth grade classroom to take on my current role as a literacy coach, I left nearly all of my classroom library in that room- just as the teacher before me, and just as the teacher before him.  The teacher who took over my fifth grade classroom moved up from first grade.  Needless to say, she was thrilled when I asked her if she'd like me to leave the library in tact.  Often times, teachers do want to share and give stuff away, but we don't always know who will take our stuff.  All you have to do is ask!  Even if you do not receive a complete library this way, you will surely gain some books for your readers.

Beg & Borrow Online
Social media is great for sharing wedding, baby, and food pictures, but it can also serve a greater purpose.  Many years ago, my friend Lisa from my triathlon club was given money to donate to a classroom from her company through Donors Choose.  As a banker, Lisa did not know many teachers.  Lucky me! She reached out to me, and asked if I had any Donors Choose projects going at the time.  I didn't.  So I created a project asking for money for classroom materials. Lisa and I then both posted one time on Facebook about the project.  Friends, family, and donors came out of nowhere to support this project!  I was in complete shock!  People wanted to donate to a classroom.

For some, it may be as simple as posting on Facebook, sending a Tweet, or sharing a picture of empty bookshelves in a classroom on Instagram.  Perhaps something like this:  Dear friends and family, the bookshelves in my classroom are empty! My students need books to read- any books!  Do you have children's books at home that you no longer read?  Do you know of anyone who does? The 24 fourth graders in room 12 would be so grateful! 

If you ask, someone is bound to give.  In fact, I've had many former classroom parents ask me if I had any use for books that they no longer read at home (my former 3rd graders, now in high school and college, no longer have use for June B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse).  If you ask, someone is bound to have extra books at home that could use some new readers.

Retired & Near-Retirement Teacher Friends
Most retired teachers I know left the majority of their classroom library books in their classrooms for the new teacher to take over when they left.  However, if you know a retired teacher, or a teacher near retirement, it may benefit you and your students if you ask them for some advice on how to build a classroom library.  Not only will they have a lot of great advice to give that they've learned over the years, but I bet they will be happy to unload some of their collected books for a teacher in need.

Ask Your Principal
I know of many principals who have given new teachers a little extra money to purchase books for their classroom libraries.  Most principals know that building a great classroom library is critical to reaching every reader in an elementary classroom.  Again, all you have to do is ask.  Don't be afraid to ask and advocate for your readers in a professional and kind way.  Provide research on why classrooms need libraries if that will help (perhaps you can start your hunt for research with the ILA's position on classroom libraries, this piece about the Impact of Trade Books on Reading Achievement, or this nice write-up on classroom libraries from Scholastic). Principals want to help their teachers. Even if a principal can't give the money needed to build your library, surely he or she will do what is possible at the time to help.

Donors Choose
I mentioned Donors Choose earlier, but I truly want to emphasize this wonderful organization.  Donors Choose started in 2000, and has now funded 596,339 teacher projects (as of 8/15/15 at 9:51AM).  Why not take a little time to create a Donors Choose project to build your classroom library?  A little time spent writing can go a long way for the readers in your classroom.  When my friend Lisa encouraged me to create a Donors Choose project many years ago, I was just shocked at how many people out there wanted to help a teacher.  Again, all you have to do is ask!  Create a project and publicize it online.  After you create it, share it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, community message boards, and even through email.  People want to give. Many just don't know where to give. You have the power to help them decide!

Donors Choose exists for one reason- to help teachers & students!

Scholastic Reading Club
Scholastic Reading Club (formerly Scholastic Book Club) has been providing teachers, students, and parents with discounted and free books for much longer than I have been in education.  The beauty of signing up for the Scholastic Reading Club with your class is that teachers earn bonus points for every book purchased by students and families.  When I first started teaching, every time I earned a certain amount of bonus points, I logged-in to Scholastic's website, selected dozens of books for my class, and requested that they be shipped directly to my school- all for free! Over the years, I was able to acquire, at no cost to me, hundreds of classroom library books, small group reading books, and favorite read alouds.  Scholastic is a great company that truly helps teachers help kiddos read. 

 Scholastic Reading Club- earn points for new books! 

Book Source
Book Source is a well organized, easy to navigate, place to purchase books, book sets, and entire classroom libraries- sometimes at highly discounted rates. Visit Book Source often to see their current prices, options, and even free resources for teachers.  If you are working on building a grade level specific library, trying to find more books in a certain genre, or would like books that are leveled, Book source is a great place to start your search.  This is also a great website to share with your principal and others who may want to support your classroom library. 

Book Source- countless classroom library resources in one place!

Amazon Wishlist
If you work in a community where parents have the means and are willing to donate to the school and classroom, I urge you to set up an Amazon Wishlist. If you do not work in a community where parents have the means to purchase books for the classroom, you can still set up a Wishlist and promote it to your own family members and friends who may want to give.  As a classroom teacher, I only did this one year, and am baffled as to why I did not do this more often.  If you do set-up a Wishlist on Amazon, it is important to keep it updated.  It is also important to ask your students to give you book recommendations to add to the Wishlist.  Parents are more apt to buy books that they know their own children will want to read! 

An Amazon Wishlist is another option for building a classroom library

I know this sounds strange, but trust me!  At some point, when you have a spare ten minutes, visit eBay to check out the endless stream of book collections for sale.  Tons of parents and teachers are selling their old books that they no longer need.  Many have prices listed, but most will take the best offer, which tends to be far below the asking price. Offer what you reasonably can, and see your library grow! 

A snapshot of  a few book collections for sale on eBay this morning

Local Book Warehouses
Book warehouses are a wonderful, often untapped, treasure chest for finding many different kinds of books for a classroom library.  Personally, I have only visited Scholastic's book warehouse here in The Bay Area, but I have heard many other teachers  talk about finding books at different warehouse sales.  To find a Scholastic warehouse near you, try Scholastic's Book Warehouse finder. If you do not have a Scholastic near you, you may have a similar warehouse or outlet nearby.  All you have to do is Google it!

Library Sales
Here in San Francisco, The Friends of the Public Library Annual Book Sale is taking place the weekend of September 15th and 16th- great timing for the start of school. If you live in Northern California, it is well worth the trip to San Francisco's Fort Mason (my gorgeous local park!) to check out.  Now, for all of my teacher friends not in my neck of the woods, I bet you have something similar within a few hours drive.  This is where Google comes in handy again!  

Used Book Stores & Thrift Books
Unfortunately, used book stores are becoming less common as time goes on.  If you do have one near you, it may be a great place to find books at highly discounted rates.  Thrift Books is a great online used book seller.  Plus, they have great sales throughout the year- especially at Back to School time!

Garage Sales
Most of us would rather not spend a Saturday or Sunday hunting for books at a garage sale, but you never know what you may find. Many families with now-grown little readers are unloading their books at garage sales across the country every weekend.

In an ideal world, every state and every school district would somehow gain the money to provide every classroom with a library that has a wide variety of books of multiple genres, levels, and topics. As you know, we live and educate our children in the real world, not in the ideal world.  Money is not plentiful and libraries are not built with the snap of a finger.  So, we have to make literacy education work for our all of our kiddos with what we have and what we acquire by using creative and sometimes uncomfortable means (asking for money is not easy).  Until the world is ideal and teachers are given all of the resources needed to create a perfect classroom environment, we'll have to continue to find creative ways to provide for ourselves and our students.  People want to help. Sometimes all we have to do is ask... and beg, borrow, hunt, search, plead, and ask again... in a professional and kind way, of course!  It may not be easy and comfortable, but really, delivering a good education to all students has never been easy or comfortable.  Yet, it has always been worth the effort! 

Happy Book Hunting, Friends! 


  1. So helpful! 3rd year teacher, and just switched grades. Having a mental breakdown about getting books. Thank you for all the great ideas!

  2. Caryce- I'm so glad you found these tips helpful. Good luck with your start of school, and happy book hunting!


I'd love to hear your comments!