“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.


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

  1. For Middle and High School students, I set due dates for the end of the marking period, when most projects have been completed. If a project continues into the next marking period and I know about it, I automatically renew the books. Since we have four marking periods each year, I only chase and charge students four times a year. Still, I do not like the negativity I or the students feel associated with overdue books. Most students do not return their books on time, but they do return them after much effort on my part. Amazingly, only a handful of students end up having to pay for a lost book.

    Elementary students usually come weekly, so I have weekly due dates. I only charge for the books after they have been overdue a month or more.

    • Four times a year still isn’t too much time and seems a fair compromise. I agree with you about the negativity students associate with “overdue,” and I’m hopeful that we can limit that association. It’s also a bright spot on the horizon for ebooks that return (and reshelve) themselves at the appropriate time.

  2. I have been working for a number of years to reduce barriers to library usage, whether it’s poor signage in library jargon, unnecessary rules, the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, and so forth. When I lost my full-time aide position a few years ago, it forced me to think more about what was really important to spend my time on. My circ system sends automated overdue notices to the patrons’ email addresses, but I don’t charge overdue fines. I charge for lost books a couple of times a year. While we normally have a 5-book limit on checkout, I almost always override that for a student, and, at school breaks, I tell the students they can check out as many books as they can carry. I love seeing them come in with big book bags so they can carry even more books. 🙂 Like you, I’ve found that you can also get decent Google results with what librarians might consider a poor search, so I don’t focus on that with instruction. Instead I focus on the authority of the sources. We used to be very particular about students being required to use X number of books, x number of database articles, no more than 1 website, or something like that. I finally convinced the teachers that as long as the students are using authoritative sources, what difference does it make what type of source the source is? For websites, which is really the only source type that might have questionable authority, the students have to use the Annotation box in their Noodlebib citations to write a description of how the source is authoritative. I’ve given them certain criteria to use for the determination. Now, obviously there are times when students must use a certain type of source, but this is Middle School, and we’re fairly flexible. Honestly, flexibility is one of the key ingredients in being an effective librarian, especially at the Middle School level.

  3. Christina — While I agree with everything you say (even though my library does charge overdue fines), I can’t help but feel that as university preparatory schools we do have some obligation to teach students appropriate library behaviours. In the real library world outside our schools, resources have due dates and when they are missed, fines are incurred. So while I want them to know that we are here to help them with their research and recreational reading needs, I also want them to recognize that they have an obligation to play by the rules. Otherwise, aren’t we failing to adequately prepare our students for university — where marks are withheld if library fines are unpaid or books are overdue? Just a thought!

    • That’s an excellent point. I hadn’t considered that directly. I feel like this school used to be one where students considered library use an “extra.” They’d go if it was required for an assignment, but they didn’t seek it our for research purposes. Thus, I’ve been working on the step of getting them to see the library as a helpful space for their own work, so they will voluntarily come here. Once they get in the pattern of library use, I would like to see it continued (responsibly) throughout college. We currently have two college students interning at the school, and they are the first to evangelize for the usefulness of university libraries and librarians.
      Thinking back on my own experiences in college and grad school, I’m realizing more how my own experiences shaped me. My college checked out books by the semester. Thus it was easy to return books “on time” because the due dates coincided with times when students were naturally cleaning out their dorms or apartments and readying for an upcoming break. While in grad school, I interned at a small public library that did not charge overdue fines, though it did send overdue notices. Comparing that library with the one I grew up with, and where I owed many fines, the general attitude at the former seemed more towards sharing community resources rather than strictly enforcing check out periods. Small libraries are better able to have that flexibility though.
      Thanks for your counter-point.

  4. At my middle school (450 students, 6-8), books are checked out for 3 weeks. I’m lenient on when they bring them back as they can renew several times. If it’s a popular fiction book, I may have them return in a week (I also will buy multiple copies). When a students says they have lost a book, I renew at least twice to give them a chance to look for a book. We do not charge for overdue books, but according to a rule set years ago, lost book replacement is $50.00. I tell the students and parents they have the option of buying the exact copy. We do send overdue notices to students, and after 2 notices are sent, we send the information to the Business Office, a few weeks later the student will get a bill and it’s amazing how quickly that book will appear in the return bin!

    Project books are a different story (no pun intended!). During a big project, books are pulled and set on separate shelves. Those books are checked out at the end of the day and due back before 1st period of the following day.

    So far, this all works for us! Happy weekend everyone!

    • One day check outs for class projects are the best of both worlds! They allow students to work at times most convenient to them, and they leave resources for an entire class during class time. Again this is an issue that may become less salient with ebooks, particularly if it becomes more common for books to allow simultaneous online access.

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