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Six Tips for Building Book Displays That Matter

Update: Although originally published on 11/1/2015, I've updated this post to refresh some broken links and also to include a few questions I've been pondering, lately, specifically: with many libraries facing limited access to physical spaces for (many?) months to come, how can we:

  • leverage our virtual spaces as more than just window dressing or as a portal to the OPAC?

  • if we believe (and I really, really do) that library displays are a largely untapped resource with the potential to affect the reader who need us most, how can se use our virtual spaces to accomplish that same work?

  • who are our displays, physical or virtual, really built for? who should they be built for? And...

  • if the answers to those two questions aren't the same, what are we going to do about it?

Original post follows ---------------------------

If I've worked with your school district or spoken at your state's conference or you happened to run into me at your neighborhood coffee shop, then you've probably heard me rant about school library book displays.  I'm afraid they are something of a pet peeve of mine.

Back in the day, I loved building book displays.  AND I was pretty good at it, (if I don't say so myself).  My displays were often works of art. Checkout this beauty from back when I was a middle school librarian. I, along with a very dedicated and crafty parent volunteer, spent days making this happen.  And when it was finished, I was so proud.

The Theme: Hidden Library Treasure: Books That Aren't Famous, But Should Be!  The Goal: Expose students to titles they might not otherwise know about.

And that's pretty much where my work ended.  And, maybe I was just a bad librarian, but I'm pretty sure that's where most of us stop when it comes to book displays.  We may point kids towards them or talk up the titles, but for the most part we adopt an "if we build it, they will come" philosophy. If the books get checked out we call it a win and if our masterpieces find a home on Pinterest, all the better.

That said, if I had it to do all over again, I might still build this display, but I'd do it differently.

I've written before about how Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell's work on library displays altered my thinking when it came to approaching this work, but it's worth mentioning again.  She advocates for using book displays as an opportunity to affect social justice. Her "Model of Librarian Involvement" upended my existing efforts in the best way possible. More importantly, however, it elevates our practice by, literally, putting our work (in addressing the literacy needs of our most vulnerable students) on display for the whole world to see. Dr. Hughes-Hassell focuses her efforts, in this area, on affecting literacy rates among African American students, but I believe her advice can be applied more broadly.

Let's look at how her model can be applied to book displays.

Level 1: The "Additive Approach." In the context of book displays, this most basic level would look like this: gathering and displaying titles that have been selected to target a specific, vulnerable population. For an example, I once worked at a school that served a large population of autistic readers. Building a display of books that feature the autistic experience in the hopes that those kids would see themselves in our library is an example of the level one achievement unlocked. We've all done this. But according to Dr. Hughes-Hassel, (and I would agree), that's not enough.

Level 2: The "Transformative Approach." Building on level one, the next step of the process would be to involve that vulnerable group in the selection of the books on display. This might look like forming an advisory group made up of students and parents to help you select the books. It might look like working with a specific class of students to help you select the books that go on display. It might look like you preselecting far more books that can physically be displayed and working with kids from the population you're targeting to narrow the long list down to the final selections. It might look like something else entirely. The key to this level, however, is that the very readers you are hoping to affect have some voice in building the display.

Level 3: The "Social Action Approach," The final level in Dr. Hughes-Hassel's model builds on the first two steps and then requires us to create an opportunity for the readers we are hoping to reach to participate or interact with the display. In this level, we've a) looked at the kids we serve and have recognized a group of readers who need support. b) We've involved those kids in helping us build a display of books and now, c) we've got to find a way for them to interact with that mini-collection.

Although I no longer have photos of this display, here's a way I tried to do this in my own library:

Level 1: I wanted to work with a specific group of 7th graders who were bright and capable, but who often got into trouble both in and out of the library because, at least in part, they did not have positive reading identities and did not see their realities reflected in school. This specific group of readers were all in the same ELA class. The vast majority of them were poor, black and lived in the same urban housing project downtown. I decided to build a display for and by them.

Level 2: I worked with the ELA teacher to collaborate on a brief lesson involving Maya Angelou's poem Still I Rise alongside an introduction to the biography/autobiography section of the library. During the lesson we talked about the line in Angelou's poem "I am the dream and the hope of the slave," briefly unpacking what we thought that meant. Then I told them I wanted to build a display of biographies and autobiographies of people who exemplified that quote. From there, we created some criteria for students to consider when selecting books for the display. Although our list was longer than what I'll share here, in the end, the criteria basically boiled down to this: the books had to be about people whose lives represent what slaves must have dreamed of for their children, grandchildren, etc. By the end of the period, I had far too many books to display, but many of the kids were so excited about the project, they volunteered to come back the next day during their lunch period to help me

Level 3: After the books were on display, the ELA teacher and I worked together to create a project in which her students each got to pick a book from the display to read. Then they created a shelf talker in which they made the case that the person they read about MOST represented "the dream and the hope of the slave." When all the books were read and the shelf talkers completed, I held a school-wide contest by purchasing some stickers that looked like the thumbs up "like" icon from Facebook. Readers who came into the library, explored the display and read the shelf talkers, could place like stickers on those that were most convincing. In the end, the entire class celebrated the success of the display, but we gave small prizes for things like... the book that received the most "likes," the book that was put on hold the most times, along with a "principal's choice" award for one selected by our administration, etc.

There are things I would definitely do differently now if I were going to tackle this project again. For example, I didn't really collect any data around how doing this work together affected circulation among these kids. Nor did I formally collect information about changes in attitudes towards reading. But overall, I see it as a success and can still celebrate the fact that it led to several other projects with that same teacher. Most importantly, however, while I didn't do the work to collect this information, I saw a huge change in the reading identities of these kids who found that the library wasn't just a place FOR them. Rather, it was a place BY and OF them.

Sure... book displays wrapped in caution tape during Banned Books Week are good fun and raise awareness of an important topic, but I just don't think that's good enough.  Too often we view our displays as a way to communicate an idea, when really we should think of them as a chance to connect with kids.  Every display presents us with an opportunity to tackle big things: to address individual student needs, to awaken dormant readers, and to engage all kids in meaningful conversations about books, reading and their lives as learners.  What's more, it is my strong belief that every display we build sends a message (not just to our students, but to everyone who walks through the door) about what we value and the purpose of our work with students.  Why would we waste that valuable real estate on displays that don't tell the real story of how librarians make a difference for kids?

In short, if I could go back in time and rebuild my former book displays,  I'd give students a voice in building them and I'd make sure I collect some data on their impact.  And most of all, I'd make them less about books and more about readers.

This may seem like a tall order, but here are some tips for getting it done.  In the end, I realize that not every book display is going to change the world....but, really, shouldn't that be our goal?

PS: Big thanks to my friend Jennifer Northrup for giving this infographic the once over before I hit publish. You're the best!


Cinnamon Bacue
Cinnamon Bacue
Sep 17, 2023

Loved the ideas in your post! I love being creative but I need to make sure I am keeping the reader in mind. Have you ever used AI to help students find books? I saw that recently in a library but am unsure how I feel about it.


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This is an AMAZING POST. I appreciate all the tips and the quick summary at the end as a takeaway. I my currently exploring my career options and taking a Teacher-Librarian course. I am working in the library at my local high school as an assistant. We have books on display, but come to think of it...I have never seen a student take a book from the display shelf. I do find myself there quite a bit, as I know that is where the new books get shelved...YAY!! I know we have books on display to show various genres, but I would not go as far as saying we are show casing books. I definitely wouldn't say we are targeting…


Lisa Matsumoto
Lisa Matsumoto
Oct 05, 2021

Wow, this post has been really eye-opening. As a new librarian, I've definitely been incorporating Level 1 types of book displays because that's what I've seen in other libraries and I thought that's what you do. But your post has allowed me to realize that book displays are so much more than that and also should be! It's really helped me reframe my thinking and your infographic is a nice and easy way to refer back to what we should keep in mind for book displays. Thanks so much for all of this information!


Thank you for sharing these tips! I have always loved book displays that librarians have created! The displays are always so creative and eye catching. I feel like if I was to create a display I would likely have only done the level one display and not even had thought more into or about a level two or three. I am excited now to one day create displays "for and by my students" to encourage their participation and then open up their interest and discovery of books.

It would be interesting to see after this display was created were the students more interested in books? Were they able to discover books they like and encourage them to take more books…

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