December Best Practice of the Month: Subject Guides

Jeannie.Standal's picture

A subject guide is a set of resources designed to help patrons fully research and explore a topic. Since the patrons of a school library are teachers and students, it is best to keep both audiences in mind when creating one.

In the old days, subject guides were lists of sources on paper, but naturally, now they are digital, interactive, and can live on your library's website, on your blog, or on nearly any platform that librarians, students and teachers can access.

When it comes to providing good library service, there are some clear advantages associated with the school library holding a growing catalog of subject guides:

  1. Time Savings: Subject guides can help both veteran and new teachers use their planning time more efficiently by corralling diverse sources of information.  School librarians know the curriculum and the projects teachers in their schools assign, and therefore, can proactively synthesize the information and organize it in one easy-to-access place.  They can also help find organize resources for professional development projects and presentations.
  2. Value in the Library: A comprehensive, up-to-date set of subject guides can help teachers and administrators see the value in the library and help them break out of the "room with books" mindset.  A modern subject guide will reflect the resources and services that are available in the school library, along with the expertise of the librarian.
  3. Collaboration:  Subject guides can be the path to collaborative partnerships with classroom teachers and other educators in your school.  The research on collaboration between school librarians and classroom teachers is clear: in schools where teachers and librarians work collaboratively, students score higher on standardized tests. 
  4. Ease of Use: Modern tools have moved subject guides from a simple list to an interactive, one-stop tool.  They can put research materials into context to make it more meaningful to the learner and can incorporate the rich variety of content available.  School librarians can use them to get information that teachers and students need much closer to their fingertips.
  5. Learning Styles: Since so many different forms of content can be included in a subject guide, more learning styles can be accommodated.  In additon, those with assignments requiring different types of sources will likely be able to find them using a guide.  If this seems like cutting corners on student research, rest assured that most college and university libraries also make subject guides available.

The first step to get started is to choose a platform for your subject guides.  Without recommending any product specifically, some examples of platforms are SubjectsPlus, Library ala Carte, and LibGuides.  Plus, there are any number of curation sites that could be used as a subject guide of sorts like WordPress, or even Pinterest and Tumblr for certain subjects, but they would be far less formal.  Another option may be to use your already existing school library webiste.  Whatever platform is used, it is important to understand the cost and the level of technical support needed to maintain it.

Once a platform has been selected, the fun begins - choose a topic and start searching! Be sure to use authoritative sources (which can mean different things for different topics).  There are myriad resources that can be included in a subject guide.  Besides print and electronic resources in your own library, there might be valuable information available through places like:

TedTalks                                                                                          TeacherTube

Online tutorials                                    Khan Academy                                      Podcasts

NPR                                                           Social Bookmarking                           Reputable blogs

Flickr photosets                                    Meta research guides                         Pinterest

Polling                                                     Local and national newspapers       Library of Congress

And so many more...

Jump in and get started!  If you are new to subject guides, start small and simple, then build from there.  Your teachers and students will thank you.

Check out these examples of Subject Guides:

Syracuse University

Franklin High School

ICfL Cyberbullying Prevention Guide



Lance, Keith Curry, et. al.  Idaho School Library Impact Study - 2009: How Idaho School Librarians, Teachers and Administrators Collaborate for Student Success.  RSL Research Group.  Boise, ID: Idaho Commission for Libraries; 2010.

Hamilton, Buffy.  Webinar: Creating Subject Guides for the 21st Century Library.  Accessed 12/2/14 at The Unquiet Librarian at