Strange Bedfellows: Integrating Mathematics into Library Instruction

With the adoption of Common Core Standards by virtually every state, attention has turned to enhancing students’ exposure to nonfiction books and instructional materials. This movement was initiated by the perceived need to adopt a more rigorous methodology due to the tenets of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. In 2014 every student in the United States should be 100 percent proficient in reading and math (U. S. Department of Education). To this end every educator, from classroom teachers to guidance counselors to librarians, is being held accountable for the achievement of these goals.

These ongoing reform initiatives result from the findings of multiple studies indicating that American students are falling behind their global peers academically, particularly in the area of mathematics (OECD, 2010; Peterson, et al., 2011). As a result, the education profession has pivoted from teaching to the tests to Common Core. Common Core Standards encourage questioning techniques that draw out the “why” with an additional focus on utilizing nonfiction materials in this process. As professional educators who are also librarians, we are adept at utilizing our unique skills to directly address and effect change via the Common Core teaching model.


Librarians are well prepared to incorporate subject-specific instruction within the context of teaching library skills. By integrating crosscurricular approaches that target specific State Performance Indicators (SPIs), library instruction becomes much more inclusive and meaningful. By purposefully taking into consideration subject-specific goals and methodically embedding the skills associated with the goals into daily library instruction, the overall library curriculum gains rigor and a more universal relevance. The following details some of the ways that mathematics SPIs within the all-encompassing framework of the Common Core can be integrated into library lessons.


Librarians can integrate mathematics skills into library instruction by using numbers already embedded into different parts of books. For example, when introducing a story, take a moment to offer students a chance to explore the title page and its verso. Provide copies of the book you are about to read to students in small groups and ask them to work cooperatively to locate the copyright date (typically on the verso of the title page) and define what a copyright date is. At this point, increase the instructional rigor by asking targeted questions such as “Since this book’s copyright date is 1991 and the current year is 2013, how many years ago was this book copyrighted?”

Some books list an author’s birth and death date on either the jacket bio or in the Library of Congress information. Ask students, “Based on the information given, how many years did the author live?” To further raise the rigor, give students an author’s birth and death dates (or current date if the author is still alive). State “Today we are reading the Caldecott Award winning book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Keats was born on March 11, 1916 and died on May 6, 1983. How long did Ezra Jack Keats live in years and days?”

Pose other subject-related mathematics questions, such as “The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Award in 1963. What do books win a Caldecott Award for, and how many years ago did this book win this award?”

These questions engage students on multiple levels. First, they aid in assessing students’ knowledge of library-related concepts and vocabulary. Second, students must not only understand the nuances of calendars but also be able to utilize this knowledge in solving math problems. Further, these types of inquiries are multi-tiered and by definition rigorous in that they require students to scaffold prior knowledge in a cross-curricular manner to answer library-related, practically formulated math-based questions.


Librarians can promote subject-specific topics through topically related books. Librarians can develop student interest in choosing math-themed books that cut across the curriculum by simply making math-focused titles readily available. Purchase and display books that integrate differing concepts, such as sports and math facts (e.g., Basketball: Real World Math by Cecilia Minden), cooking books that emphasize math skills (e.g., I Use Math in the Kitchen by Joanne Mattern), biographies on noted mathematicians (e.g., What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras? by Julie Ellis), or pure mathematical concepts presented in unique ways (e.g., Domino Addition by Lynette Long) to open students’ minds to new possibilities. By having intriguing, high quality books that incorporate math-related topics, librarians can create the impetus in students to take a chance to read and learn something new while extending their mathematics skills. Further, these types of best practices support the Common Core instructional concept of utilizing more factual, nonfiction reading selections. Finally, by creating enticing or interactive displays with these types of books, librarians move math to the top of their students’ minds.


Another set of math concepts to emphasize is associated with sequencing. For primary students, use a book’s index to evaluate their ability to locate particular terms on their corresponding pages. Once the specified term is found in the index, observe and, when needed, assist students in using numeric sequencing skills to locate the page(s) on which the designated term is found. Additionally, sequencing is an essential skill in finding books on library shelves. As school librarians know, the Dewey Decimal System orders nonfiction materials first by numbers that correspond to the subject matter of the book. This requires students to be able to locate a book by call number via numerical sequence. Beyond whole numbers, knowledge of fractional numbers is required to successfully locate specific books within in a numeric range. These fractional numbers are represented by decimals. Therefore, if a student wanted to find How Much Is a Million? by David Schwartz with the call number 513.2, the student would need to know how decimals work to comprehend that 513.2 is located on the shelf between 513.1 and 513.3. The testing of student sequencing skills and the rigor associated with using the Dewy Decimal System to find books on the shelf gets more challenging as the decimal places stretch beyond the 10th place to the 100th place, 1000th place, and so on. In teaching the Dewey Decimal System especially for nonfiction books, librarians are afforded the perfect opportunity to introduce sequential numbering, fractional numbers, and decimal place ordering to primary grades and to reinforce these mathematics concepts with intermediate and secondary students.


Conduct workshops and seminars to demonstrate how teachers and librarians can work cooperatively to enrich and extend the impact of core subjects instruction. Through making teachers aware of the overlap in the library and classroom curricula, all educators will gain the benefit of working in unison through the common goal of enhancing students’ academic performance. While this article primarily addressed the convergence of library and mathematics skills in connection with SPIs and the Common Core model, a similar approach could highlight the commonalities between library instruction and any of the core subject areas. The demands required for an educator to earn both a teaching license and library certification by necessity makes them versatile, well rounded, knowledgeable professionals fully capable of working with fellow educators to create cross-curricular lessons and units. In this way, librarians can reach beyond the library walls to impact student performance in all subject areas and instill in students the knowledge and skills required to succeed in school and beyond.


The following are examples of books that integrate math with student interests:

Primary (Kindergarten-grade 2)

Domino Addition by Lynette Long (Charlesbridge, 1996)

Eating Fractions by Bruce McMillan (Scholastic Press, 1991)

I Spy Two Eyes: Numbers in Art by Lucy Micklethwait (Mulberry Books, 1998)

I Use Math in the Kitchen by Joanne Mattern (Weekly Reader, 2006)

I Use Math in the Workshop by Joanne Mattern (Weekly Reader, 2006)

Math at the Store by William Amato (Children’s Press, 2002)

The Baseball Counting Book by Barbara Barbieri McGrath (Charlesbridge, 1999)

What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras? A Math Adventure by Julie Ellis (Charlesbridge, 2004)

Intermediate (Grades 3-6)

Betcha! by Stuart J. Murphy (HarperCollins, 1997)

Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Voyage Books, 1994)

The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang (Scholastic Press, 2001)

Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins (Simon & Schuster, 1997)

Math Fables by Greg Tang (Scholastic Press, 2004)

Math for All Seasons by Greg Tang (Scholastic Press, 2002)

Polar Bear Math: Learning about Fractions by Ann Nagda and Cindy Bickel (Henry Holt & Co., 2004)

Tiger Math: Learning to Graph from a Baby Tiger by Ann Nagda (Henry Holt & Co., 2000)

Secondary (Grades 7-12)

Do You Wanna Bet? by Jean Cushman (Clarion Books, 1991)

Einstein: Visionary Scientist by John Severance (Clarion Books, 1999)

Magic Naturally by Vicki Cobb (HarperCollins, 1993)

The Math Chef by Joan DAmico and Karen Drummond (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997)

Using Math in the ER by Hilary Koll, Steve Mills and Kerrie Whitwell (Gareth Stevens, 2007)

Using Math on a Space Mission by Hilary Koll, Steve Mills and Anne Brumfitt (Gareth Stevens, 2007)

Using Math to Build a Skyscraper by Hilary Koll, Steve Mills and William Baker (Gareth Stevens, 2007)

Using Math to Conquer Extreme Sports by Wendy and David Clemson (Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2004)

Using Math to Design a Roller Coaster by Hilary Koll, Steve Mills and Korey Kiepert (Gareth Stevens, 2007)

Further Reading

OECD. PISA 2009 Results: Executive Summary. 2010. Web.; Peterson, P, L. Woessmann, E. Hanushek, and C. Lastra-Anadon. Globally Challenged: Are US. Students Ready to Compete? Harvard, August 2011. p. 1-29. Web.; United States Department of Education (PL 107-110). No Child Left Behind Act of2001. Web.

D. Jackson Maxwell and Robyn F. Maxwell

MLA Citation Maxwell, D. Jackson, and Robyn F. Maxwell. "Strange Bedfellows: Integrating Mathematics into Library Instruction." Library Media Connection, 32, no. 1, August 2013. School Library Connection,

View all citation styles

Entry ID: 1949038

Back to Top