Updated: Aug 27, 2018
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.”
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 midst 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.