“When is it due?”…and other thoughts on library vocabulary

Katie’s thought-provoking post on maintaining print subscriptions (dare I say our most popular post ever?) and an email on Monday from a college friend have me doing a last minute complete revamp of my post. Her email:

    “I actually thought of you recently because I had to explain to Es [her toddler] why I still call the library computer system a ‘card catalog’ even though there are no cards involved. Do you do this?”

What elements of “libraryness” are essential to libraries today? I could throw out academic jargon like makerspaces and learning commons, but I’m thinking more concretely about the ways that I interact with my students and teachers on a daily basis. To answer my friend, I call it the catalog, rather than the card catalog. It’s still a catalog of materials and until the day that a physical card catalog makes its way into my life (patience self—it will happen), I get little enough instructional time with students that I’m not concerned with them understanding the history of print-based organizational systems. On those rare days when I’m inclined to forget that I’m growing older and that my cultural touchstones are not those of my students, I remember comments like this one from a freshman who was showing another freshman how to save a document to the school network.

 “Click on the square with the corner cut out.”

save icon

They’ve never used discs, hard or floppy. It’s just an icon to them. What other remnants of traditional libraries am I eliminating from my program? I place two common patron questions up for your consideration.

 “When is it due?”

I like my materials orderly and front-loaded on the shelves, and I like them returned. As to when, however, my general answer is much vaguer. “When you’re finished.” or “By the end of the school year would be great.” I tend to know the projects that students are checking out materials for (there are about 450 students in the Middle and Upper divisions) and when those projects are due. While the official catalog has a two week check out period because we share with the younger division, none of the students ever see a date stamp or a receipt. In my particular case, it’s just me and no assistant, so I choose not to let long check outs bother me. Most of my books get returned, and my loss statistics are in keeping with acceptable standards. Rather than writing overdue slips, I’d rather spend my time focusing on higher-level research tasks and engaging with the students about what they’re reading. If it’s a popular fiction book, I try to frame the conversation to get the student to read the book quickly and return it. “I loved that book! I bet you’re not going to be able to put it down and will have it back Monday.” or “I can’t believe this is in right now. It’s been checked out all year. An 8th grader was just in here yesterday asking about it. As soon as you’re finished, get it back to me so I can get it to her.” No enforcements, just gentle pressure to read, enjoy, and return.

 “What do I owe?”


I don’t know if your school charges late fees, and I’m thinking specifically about independent school libraries in this paragraph. Clearly, as you’ve already deduced from the previous paragraph, my school does not. We do charge for missing books in May, but that’s only a few families each year and it’s coordinated through the Business Office. As I’ve been planning a research trip to the public library for my freshmen, I keep encountering the resistance that they don’t go to the library because it’s “too expensive.” Many have a story along the lines of losing a picture book under the bed as a child, owing “lots” (what is lots to a kindergartner anyway?) of money, and never returning. I’m chipping away at that fallacy with the help of a team of lovely public librarians who couldn’t be more welcoming, and I’m even returning books to the public library for my teens. However, the bad taste from owed fines lingers. I doubt that the money I’d make by tracking late fees would make up for my time and frustration in chasing down students or their impression of the library as a place out for their money.

I was going to tackle circulation statistics here, but I think I’ll save that for next month since that’s often tied into the bigger picture, i.e. $$$. Needless to say, even if I’m dropping two features that my students associate with libraries, they’re ones that indicate negative associations. I want all of my interactions with students to leave them happier and better prepared in their assignments. Chasing them down for materials and money undermines this goal. I’d rather have frequent library users than a perfect library collection.

Finally a plea. Let’s reframe the conversation around Google search versus our own catalog and database search capabilities. Google is a search engine! The company’s business model requires that it produce great results, even when kids type in questions that I find profoundly silly.

Why did the French Revolution fail while the US succeeded according to Locke?”

You and I might want to sit this student down to teach keywords and Boolean operators. In that time, Google is chugging away and offering suggestions, some poor and, surprisingly, some better than I would have expected. When we say things like “our catalog isn’t as smart as Google” or “when using our catalog, be sure to use advanced keyword search,” students are instead hearing “Use Google. You know it. It’s easier. It has everything.” Whenever possible, play up the strengths of your collection, even in cases where it isn’t as easily indexed as general web search, because there are benefits in accuracy and authority that may outweigh findability. Do searches with students and explain as you go. They’re listening. They want libraries to be helpful, and we’ve got to show them that they are.