Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Back To School Challenge

Yesterday, I stopped at Starbucks on my way home and had a conversation with a barista named Ryan. I’ve replayed it about a hundred times since walking out of the coffee shop with my latte. I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
Ryan: “Those glasses are amazing. You look like, like…. a really cool librarian.” 
Me: “Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I’m actually a really cool librarian.” 
Ryan: “Really? My librarian hated me.” 
Me: “C’mon. I’m sure she didn’t hate you.” 
Ryan: “Maybe. I lost a copy of The Outsiders in 8th grade and when I got to high school, she said I couldn’t checkout or whatever until I returned it or paid for it. I told her we moved a buncha times and my mom didn’t have a job, and it might be at my dad’s house, but I wasn’t allowed to go there, but whatever, she wasn’t having it. I think a lot of kids lied about losing books, so she didn’t believe us, but I wasn’t lying."
Me. “I’m sorry. That’s messed up.” 
Ryan: “Nah. What was REALLY messed up is that whenever I came into the library, she would call me out and say stuff like ‘Hey, SE Hinton, where’s my book??’ Then one time, I said, ‘hey, you know SE Hinton was a girl, right?’ and then she wrote me up for detention for being disrespectful!” 
Me: (Shaking my head.) “Please tell me this story has a happy ending.” 
Ryan: “It was okay. I just had my friends check stuff out for me if I needed something for class.” 
Me: …. 
Ryan: “Anyway, I finally ended up paying for it, though, because she said I couldn’t walk at graduation if I didn’t. And you know, she wrote SE Hinton on the receipt!??! She didn’t even know my name. I had to ask her to give me another one. It was crazy.” 
Me: “On behalf all librarians, I apologize. That was wrong.” 
Ryan: “It’s okay. I don’t like to read anyway.”

I’ve written about library fines in this space, and others, numerous times. In fact, here’s a snippet of what I shared on the subject back in January of this year:
When I was a kid, books represented something precious and fragile. My family moved around a lot and when I was about seven years old, the few books I did own were used as kindling, and burned in our wood stove, because it was winter, we didn't have electricity and we were cold. But even when life was a bit more stable, it was difficult to keep track of things like library books. I constantly owed money to the public library and despite the fact that I treasured the books handed to me by a teacher or school librarian, they inevitably got lost or, at best, were returned late or damaged. Over the years, there were plenty of librarians who turned me away when I tried to add another book to the list of those I'd already checked out, but thankfully, there were some who didn't.

Years later, as a brand new librarian, I landed at a school where collecting fines and keeping kids from checking out books, if they owed money, was just part of what had always been done, and I eagerly played along. I worked hard, every year, to collect every last dime that was "owed" to the library, and in the process made a lot of kids feel like they weren't welcome or that they were somehow suspect. It took me several years to pluck up the courage to decide I needed a do-over and to reset my circulation policies, so that they were more closely aligned to my core mission of helping students develop rich and authentic reading lives.

And guess what? The number of books I lost as a result was minimal. I didn't end the year with empty shelves. Here's what happened instead: 
  • I developed relationships with kids whom I would never have gotten to know before, because their debt to the library stood in the way.
  • I changed the library from a place of punishment to one of possibility.
  • I was able to get books in the hands of kids who would have had no reading material otherwise.
  • My circulation statistics went WAY up.
  • I retired from the role of book police and was promoted to the job of reading champion.
  • I slept better at night.
And, ironically, I discovered that for kids who did lose materials, positive relationships are a far better motivator than the threat of not getting their diploma or not being admitted to a school dance. When kids love you and know that you love them, there's very little they won't do in order to not let you down. 
The bottom line is this, being good stewards of the monies we're allotted to build library collections is important. And I don't know anyone who thinks they are allotted nearly enough money, so I understand how devastating losing the one copy of a really popular book can be. AND I know that when one kid loses a book, that means countless others don't get to read it. I know all of those things. But I also know that we don't work for the IRS. We are not debt collectors. We are reading champions. And, for those kids, like me, who don't have books at home and whose home lives make keeping up with borrowed materials challenging, WE must not be the thing standing between that child and the book that forever changes them. We all went into this business, because we know the power of story. We cannot allow the fear of losing a book to be the thing that keeps us from putting it in the right child's hands.
Oddly, of all the things I post in this space, and on social media, the topic I receive the most pushback on is library fines. Whether it’s accusing me of being out of touch or snarkily suggesting that “it must be nice to only work in schools/districts with unlimited budgets for library materials” (spoiler alert: I imagine that would be nice, but I’ve never worked in a district with dedicated library budgets, so try again), I’m always surprised by how defensive, and downright nasty, some of the comments can be when I suggest that maybe, just maybe, withholding books from children contradicts our core mission as librarians.

That said, as much of the world gets ready to head back to school, and even for those who are in the midsts of an epic school year, I’d like to challenge you to do the following:

How many Ryans can we afford to chalk off in the name of “teaching responsibility?”

Only you can decide how to answer that question for yourself and for your students.

And, look, even if you don’t feel comfortable eliminating fines or your administration doesn’t want you to offer students who have lost one, two or even ten books, a fresh start by wiping their accounts clean, I encourage you to think about what you CAN do.
CAN you change your circulation rules to put a cap on fines so that students never owe more than $2.00? $5.00? Etc? 
CAN you change your circulation rules so that children who repeatedly lose books only take home one at a time until they’re able to develop some strategies for returning them? 
CAN you partner with your school’s guidance counselor to schedule regular conferences* with students who cannot checkout due to lost and late materials. *Conversations that focus on identifying and eliminating the barriers that keep the child from returning books.
CAN you stop publicly identifying kids who have missing/late materials? 
CAN you still allow children with late/lost books to checkout, but then work with the classroom teacher to keep some/all of the books in the classroom instead of sending all of them home? 
CAN you invite the parents of kids whose accounts are currently blocked by fines or lost books to come in for “lunch with the librarian” or “breakfast with a booknerd” or to serve as a volunteer, in order to build a positive relationship that might result in fewer lost materials? 
CAN you create opportunities for kids to “earn” a cleared account WITHOUT forcing poor kids into demeaning manual labor like cleaning shelves, etc.

CAN you think of other ways to build relationships with kids that make them WANT to return books on time and to locate those long missing ones because they love you and they know you love them? 
CAN you work with other librarians in your district, or PLN, to develop strategies that make NOT losing readers more important than not losing books?
Now… before you @ me with stories of how library fines are good for kids, I beg you… step away from the keyboard. INSTEAD of personal anecdotes, show me the research proving that library fines support the literacy needs of students, that they make children more responsible and that they don’t disproportionately affect poor kids.

In the meantime, here’s some resources related how libraries all over the world are doing away with library fines, or creating forgiveness programs, and the research that’s inspiring those movements.
Finally, to Ryan, I just want to say again that I’m sorry. I wasn’t your librarian, but I wish i had been. I would have known your name. I would have heard your story. I would have let you continue to checkout books. And I would have done everything in my power to help you become someone who loved to read.


  1. Thank you from the bottom of my heart

  2. Is there a different approach to consider regarding the difference between late fees and handling lost replacement fees/access to additional books in the meantime? I like the idea of providing more access, but am still digesting this research and blog.

    1. We already do not charge late fees. Like you, I am trying to figure out how I will handle lost books. Once a student tells me that a book is "lost", how will my policy both support students and provide a little incentive to find and return the book? Could anyone share the specifics of a student-centered policy for lost that has worked in a school setting? I am grateful for any suggestions!

  3. Hope Ryan reads this! ❤️❤️❤️

  4. Excellent post! Your suggestion of keeping books in the classroom WORKS. It’s how l start with the kindergarten classes, with first grade too at the beginning of their school year. It’s a lot for a little person to understand the responsibilities of “borrowing.” No fines, no restrictions; limited borrowing maybe until we “get back on track.”
    It’s ironic that the book Ryan borrowed was The Outsiders. The taunting librarian made Ryan feel like an “outsider” for sure! Too bad that he hates to read.

    1. New-ish librarian here. I like the idea of little ones leaving books at school until they learn the concept of borrow/return/borrow/return. :-) What do you do when books are really lost (with no hope of return)? We have provided an "Honor Cart" stocked with the best of our discards so that no one has to leave the library empty-handed...but I don't want to limit students to castoffs. Maybe we could start the year with a clean slate and then have conversations as books go missing. I am told it has been a large problem in past years. Ideas to share?

    2. "Lost book" "Librarian to student: Can you find a replacement book - garage sale, Salvation army, where ever? Book has to be clean, nice enough to go on our shelves. Should be a book that matches the grade levels of the library. Would be nice if it were the same story, or probably one we don't have, or another coy of a often-checked out book. You can help me get it ready to put on the shelf." You can get some interesting books this way. I have even "allowed" Disney or Golden Press books. They don't last that long, getting weeded in a year or two. Sometimes I keep 1-2 of the not great trades, to show others what not to look for (dirty, written in, torn pages, dog-bitten pages).

  5. This future teacher librarian loves this post! Thank you ;)

  6. Please go back each week and talk books with Ryan! It's not too late for him. He can be a book lover! Maybe the cosmos are hoping you'll be his guide!!!

  7. Awesome post and you have inspired me to re-think the policies at my High School library. We don't charge fines, but we do restrict students from the library who are more than 4 weeks with overdue materials. I am sure I can come up with a better idea to help students return materials. Like you said, just creating a relationship with students can be a big motivator.

    1. I'm a future high school teacher librarian and I would love to hear what you come up with!

  8. This is amazing.

  9. Thank you for the challenge. Thank you for giving me cause to think through a policy that to me always seemed paired to the library like peanut butter and jelly. You’re right, our job is to promote literacy - and fines and not letting kids take books out work against that mission. I will have to continue to ponder how to apply that to my future practice (since I am currently working towards becoming a teacher librarian). I do struggle with the “teaching responsibility” aspect of bring back library books, as learning responsibility is important, but I also agree with you that relationships are most important. I’ll definitely be looking into the research you provided as I think this through. As I said before, thank you for the challenge.

  10. Thank you for a reminder that relationships and getting books into the hands of students are a priority. I've already written down a few new ideas to help those who have trouble remembering to bring their books back. Have a great school year!

    1. Yay! I hope you have a great school year, also!

  11. This made me cry. Power is the thing that underlies library fines. We [librarians, overwhelmingly white cis hetero women] have power and you don't, we have power so we have the privilege of never seeing your experiences. You lowly whoever can tell us to our faces how we are hurting you and we still get to go "no, i know better how resources should be managed and conserved."

    For me professionalization and the clinging to professional credentialling as a way to preserve what little pay and benefits advantages we still have as library workers plays into it as much as the history of libraries as these like incubators/instillers of white citezenship values.

    Can you tell library fines are a pet peeve of mine?

    1. I tend to believe that most people believe they are doing the right thing, even if that thing turns out to be very wrong. That said, being aware of whatever privilege we carry, in ANY situation, helps us be more empathic... and empathy usually leads to actions fueled by compassion.

  12. My school does not have late fees nor does it charge for lost/ damaged materials. I have students with 8-10 missing books, and I could spend more than 50% of my budget just replacing all the missing materials each year. If I need 2 copies of a book, I try to buy 4. I'm considering moving from hardcover books to paperbacks because so few books make their way back to the library after being checked out 2 or 3 times. My students know that they won't be charged for the items so they don't bother to bring them back. It's so discouraging. But I also know that accidents happen and things get lost. I only ask that the student bring a note signed by an adult in their household that the book is truly gone. Then I know that I can remove it from the catalog and order a replacement.

    1. I'm sorry to hear that this has proven frustrating for you. It sounds like things have been taken to the opposite extreme. I hope you're able to find a balance between compassion and helping students be good stewards of library materials. I'm not sure if you're allowed to have a "friends of the library" or library helper club made of students - but I often found it helpful to recruit students whose materials were chronically late or last to be a part of those groups so I could build relationships with them. Sometimes being a part of the inner workings of the library and connecting with the librarian can affect intrinsic motivation to make sure materials are returned in a timely way. Good luck.

  13. This past year we've grappled with this issue and found a semi-solution that seems to work fairly well. After a student's book is "late" for 30 days we mark it as lost. We talk to the kids during the weeks leading up to marking it lost and contact parents as best we can to touch base and see if we can help. After a month it's marked lost and a fine notice is generated and goes home to parents. At that point, students are allowed to check out 1 book at a time (2nd -5th can check out up to 3 books typically and keep them for up to 2 weeks at a time). At the onset of this, we have a conversation with the student about why he/she is being limited to 1 book. We talk to them about strategies they can try (leave it at school, keep it in your backpack, etc.) and let them know that they will be on "probation" for a month. If the student shows improved checkout behaviors for a month, they are allowed to bump their checkout limit to 2 books. This repeats until they are back up to 3 checkouts. It's AMAZING how well this has worked. Of course, there are still going to be kids that lose books, but it is SIGNIFICANTLY reduced. We initially thought kids would be excited to be able to checkout again, but we found that they felt a little snubbed, "Only 1??That's not fair!" was the common response. We talked about why and brainstormed what makes a successful library patron. We especially discuss barriers they experience. Sometimes they're like Ryan, but not all. We try very hard to keep checkout records private to keep students from feeling like they're wearing the scarlet letter. I really like the suggestion of capping the fee. I'll talk to our district finance person about that. I once asked her about creating a fund where people could "pay what they could" toward a fine. It was shot down completely. So... thank you for your suggestions. I think fines are always on librarian brains.

    1. I like the way you've turned this into a positive conversations with your students. It can be a tough things to balance, but the effort is worth it. Thank you.

  14. I teach 4th grade and have developed a classroom library made up of my own books, my own children’s books, books from garage sales, Goodwill, and many from discarded libraries. My classroom library policy is this...READ the books. There is no sign out sheet, no clipboard, no way for me to know who has what. I’ve tried other “checkout” methods in the past, but this hands off approach has proven to be, by far, the most effective. I have students from previous years who frequently come back to my classroom to return/borrow books. I encourage students to take as many books as they will read over the summer break, knowing some may never be returned. It seems much more beneficial that the book might possible be read than to spend months boxed up without any chance of use. Incredibly, the shelves are always stocked. More incredibly, I often have students who donate books to our classroom library instead of putting them in garage sales or passing them to others. I know the dollar value of quality books as well as anyone, however, when dealing with children, the value of the development of the love of reading is priceless.