Overdues: Overdone?

Ah, the pesky overdue. Does the overdue notice, and its cousin, the fine, still have a place in a library? Matt Ball, from the Woodruff Library at Pace Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, posed these questions (and his answers) on the AISL discussion list:
Why do we have overdues? (To get books back.)
Why do we want them back? (So other students can check them out.)
Do other students want to check them out? (Don’t know.  But with popular titles, yes.)

Matt continued: “Centrally, my feeling is that if a student wants a book and has it checked out, let them keep it until someone else needs it.” Steve Matthews, from the Currier Library at Foxcroft School agrees: “Certainly, there is the chance of missing a serendipitous opportunity of person finding book/media by lucky chance, but since the person who checked it out has already made a connection, that seems enough.”

And yet, the concept that library books are for sharing seems central to me.  Building the character trait of responsibility seems important to me:  if you borrow something, please return it as agreed, or ask for an extension. And since I promote the idea of browsing when you are in the mood to read, I want popular books frequently in and out, to be browsed. When books are (as Carolyn LaMontagne at the Reed-Gumenick Library at Collegeiate Middle School says) “living in a locker or under a bed” how does that affect other library patrons?

One thing that’s been great:  Our circulation software sends an automated email notice two days in advance of the due date, with the subject line: Courtesy Reminder: Library material due soon.  This gives students (if they check their email, which not all do!) every chance to get in front of the overdue. We renew most books upon request.  I have a template for a “gentle reminder” email (Joanne Crotts also uses that phrase at the Skinner Library at the Asheville School) that I send individually, using school email, the first week a book is past due. Week two is a phone call, if there is a family phone. If no family phone, I try to catch the student between classes, or send a second email, rather than call a parent cell phone. The third notice is an email to the child with a cc: to the parent email(s).  Past that is a follow up email, with the replacement cost “if the book is lost.”

To touch on fines:  Our policy is 10 cents a day, but students rarely have money on them, and the fines are usually minimal. Usually I will delete the fine with a smile and ask the student to “pay it forward” and do something nice for someone else. That saves me a headache over 80 cents, and still reminds the student of the policy and holds them accountable for the late return.

This is a blog post without a “right” answer. Different policies will work for different librarians and different populations.  As I expand my notion of what a library is (and it’s expanded it a lot in the past 5 years!) I’m glad that overdue items take up a smaller percentage of my time.

Plaase leave a comment and/or share ideas if you have an system that works for you!

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4 Responses to Overdues: Overdone?

  1. Mary Wethern says:

    Our “fine” is a canned good. Therefore, our students are essentially “paying it forward.

  2. Shannon Acedo says:

    Thanks for the interesting post, Maggie. We want kids to use our resources, but we also need kids to RETURN our resources. When a student needs something and it’s not there, that may be the start of an idea that “The Library never has what I need”– and the inconvenience serves no useful purpose when that book is (as Carolyn says) under a bed or in a locker. When items circulate properly that possibility is reduced.

    We don’t have fines, here, because students are impacted differently by fines. Those less well off might take them seriously but those who are financially flush might not care a bit. We do send overdue notices, then after 3 notices the student is charged by the business office for replacement costs. Sometimes this is what gets attention (and brings the book back), but even if not, we are still able to replace the book without worrying about making change for a dollar at the desk.

    It’s always a balancing act to provide service that gives the greatest good to the most students. Thanks for promoting conversation on how everyone manages this balance.

  3. Carly Pansulla says:

    I’ve never denied a renewal request to a student unless a different student is waiting for the title in question. And we don’t charge fines at my library, only replacement costs (and those only at the end of the year after a series of emails to student and parent to try to recover the lost item). But I do agree that the fundamental principle of a library material as a shared resource is an important one to maintain – for busy students who are truly reading a few pages at a time and want to work their way through something, I’ll renew indefinitely, but I do BookTalk and display my new, popular materials, so if they’re under a laundry pile I try to (gently!) encourage their return; we serve a small enough community that I can follow up with individual students, so our policy can be more formal than the actual practice. I also work exclusively with high schoolers, so as a college prep piece, I feel I have a responsibility to help them practice using a library the way they’ll be expected to use their university library – overdues for reserve materials can be quite steep, replacement fees for university materials are high, and I don’t want to leave my seniors unprepared for another library system, facing enormous fines at the end of their first college paper because I haven’t held them accountable for properly keeping track of their library account for the past four years. So I also will renew for a freshman with different language and reminders than for a senior. But again, that’s a privilege of a manageable student body.

  4. We still have overdues and charge fines at Memphis University School. For our boys, grades 7-12, it provides structure and teaches them responsibility–I think it sends the message that the books do belong to the community and need to be shared. It also helps them get ready for dealing with the “real world” including college. We don’t need the money and are forgiving when students are sick or have extenuating circumstances. If they run up a large fine, they can work it off, and we give them all a “GOOFF” (Get Out of Fine Free) card during orientation and use them as incentives at other times such as Teen Read Week.

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