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How Dynamic Shelving Can Change Your Library

Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

To start, the title “Dynamic Shelving” is not my idea: it’s the idea of librarian Kelsey Bogan, whose great blog “Don’t Shush Me” is a treasure trove of ideas for new and old librarians alike. This is a simple yet very effective concept and can help your library in many ways.

When students enter the library that I manage, I’ve become hyperaware, since interviewing Kelsey, that students can become overwhelmed by staring at what can be rows and rows of book spines. Having a library with thousands of books that reflect the lives of the student population that you serve is vitally important, yet without a librarian there to guide them it can be a confusing ordeal.

There is evidence to suggest that having too much choice can be detrimental. This is reflected in the UK supermarket giant Tesco and their decision to reduce the number of products they serve by 30,000. There can be parallels drawn to a school library and this decision by Tesco to reduce the number of products. The reason Tesco is doing this is that they understand that their customers are short on time and that shopping in a huge store can be exhausting and stressful, especially if you have children in tow.

In a school library, the students are also short on time. They have to grab some food, rush in, look for a book, or join a club and then look for a book if they want one. Then they are faced with nothing but row after row of spines that tell them absolutely nothing about the books they are staring at. This is where dynamic shelving comes in, because it’s a great way to reduce that stress, bring in new readers, increase circulation and make your job easier as well.

It Increases Circulation

In my opinion, dynamic shelving cannot exist without a good weeding policy. I’ve written before about the importance of weeding in libraries, and it’s crucial for your patrons/customers/users to know that you are not an archive or some sort of knowledge repository; a school or public library’s job is to have accurate, up-to-date information alongside a diverse range of fiction titles that will engage readers, stimulate debate, and yes, even enrage people. There’s no such thing as a neutral library, at least there shouldn’t be. Dynamic shelving means you are creating space on your library shelves for a lot of face out book presence. It’s that simple, but it creates a lot of opportunities for old and new users of your library to find great books. If they come in and see the covers of intriguing books — and let’s face it, we do often judge books by their covers — they will be more inclined to approach the shelf, feel less intimidated, and borrow a book.

We Are Competing For Their Time

There is no doubt that reading doesn’t always appear high on the priority list for kids and teens. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that there is so much competition for their time: things that provide immediate, yet fleeting gratification. If a young user of a library comes in and doesn’t see something eye-catching or immediate, there is a chance they will feel completely overwhelmed with choice. The librarian’s job is there to guide them, yes, but it is much, much easier to guide them if you’ve got a head start with something like dynamic shelving. In our library, we are very lucky to have a dedicated group of student librarians. I use their skills to write reviews (see below) and to talk about great books, especially YA, which I often feel left behind on because I’m reading so much middle grade week after week. It’s a good thing, but it means I do rely on others for my older YA recommendations more often than not.

Think Like a Bookshop

When you enter a bookshop, you’ll see that it’s laid out in a very specific way which is completely designed to capture our attention — and it works. Libraries, often stretched for time themselves, have limited shelf space and even limited budget to bring in new, attractive titles. That makes it difficult to “think like a bookshop,” but it is still worth mentioning. Using the resources they have, libraries can still create shelving arrangements where the books are largely face out and therefore jump out at the user. Another great display promotion I like to use are things that are called “shelf-talkers” which are simply little recipe card holders where reviews can be written. They hang a few inches off the shelf. I use these for teacher and student written reviews, and when I run out of them, I simply stick the review card inside the book for the user to see. Often, seeing a decorated card sticking out of the book can entice them enough to start thumbing through the book.

There is no magic wand approach to shelving arrangements, however, as mentioned, there is strong evidence to show that kids and teens who are presented with a wall of books can feel overwhelmed and even anxious. Too much choice without a dedicated librarian on hand can have a detrimental effect. Using dynamic shelving by bringing great books to the forefront with well-written reviews and presented in a way that they jump out at students can make a difference and it’s worth a try.