Looking @ Overdue Library Books & How to Handle Excuses

Looking @ Overdue Library Books & How to Handle Excuses - Overdue library books are a perpetual problem for School Librarians, but we need a friendly, non-judgmental policy that maintains book circulation and student reading. Here are some typical excuses from students, and tolerant ways to deal with them. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #overduebooks #overduebookexcusesEvery year, about a month after school begins, we School Librarians begin to tackle the recurring and everlasting problem of overdue library books. Each school seems to have it’s own special problems and each librarian contrives some unique solutions. There is, however, one constant for all of us: the clichéd excuses students offer about their overdue book.

Overdue book excuses can be especially troublesome when we’re trying to check out books for 30—or 60—students before the end of a period, but we can respond calmly and more productively if we understand the underlying cause of these overdue excuses. No matter if you are elementary, middle school, or high school, the ‘reasons’ students offer for not returning a book on time come in 3 forms: avoidance, blame, or contrition.


Avoidance is a non-confrontational response, and we don’t want to escalate it. We just need to provide a simple prompt to bring the student’s attention to a possible solution. Here’s how I handle 4 common avoidance excuses:

avoidance-I don't remember that bookThis is a classic, spur-of-the-moment avoidance response. I tell the student the date the book was checked out, grab one of my handy overdue bookmarks, write the book title, and slip the bookmark into the new book as I check it out. When I hand the book to the student I ask them to ‘look in their locker and at home, and get it back to me as soon as they find it.’

avoidance-I don't know where it isThis is probably the truth, and why the book is overdue. I follow the same bookmark procedure and tell them I’m sure they’ll find it if they look around their locker and at home.

avoidance-I never checked that outWith this excuse the student is embarrassed and doesn’t want us to make a big deal about it. I gently remind them I scanned their ID badge or they entered their ID number on the keypad, so they must have checked it out. I grab the overdue bookmark, add the title and, in this case, the date checked out, hand it over in their new book and give the standard ‘look in locker and at home’ request.

avoidance-I already returned that bookThis classic excuse and is often a bluff in hopes we’ll let it go. Since even super-librarians make mistakes during check-in, I grab a sticky note, write the call number and title, and give it to the student telling them to go find the book on the shelf and bring it to me. If it’s a check-in mistake I scan the book and apologize, making a joke about ‘these darn computers’ or, in my case, ‘this gray hair.’ If they can’t find it, I follow the usual procedure with the overdue bookmark.

Students get a kick out of my ‘gray hair’ reference: I tell them my hair is gray because all the color has leaked out, leaving a hollow tube, and now I mess up because my brains are leaking out the tube, too.


Blame excuses are confrontational, and we definitely can’t let them go; however, we need to realize that blame is really avoidance accompanied by a fear of retribution. If we respond in a calm manner, offering a workable solution that puts the onus where it belongs, we’ll avoid escalating the situation by removing the fear. Here are 4 examples.

blame-someone stole itThis is the universal middle school answer to anything that is missing. If your school is like mine, a few library books do get shuffled around in the gym or cafeteria, so I simply ask where might that have happened while I’m filling in the title on that handy overdue bookmark. Sympathy defuses the fear and with the bookmark I tell the student to look for it…just in case it’s in a locker or at home.

blame-I gave it to my friend to read & she'll return itThis excuse sounds like such a noble gesture, but really shifts the burden of responsibility to another student. I ask if the other person is in the library, and if so, have the student bring them up to discharge then checkout the book to the newly responsible party.

If the other student is not in the library, I gently remind the student that as long as the book is checked out to them, they are responsible for it, so they need to either get the book or the student into the library so we can solve the overdue…and I give them the overdue bookmark as a reminder.

blame-are you sure I checked that outThis excuse implies the problem is our fault, but we can maintain our cool. I remind the student about using IDs for checkout so a mistake is unlikely, but since it is possible, they can help me by looking around for the book, in their locker or at home, and I hand them the overdue bookmark.

blame-my teacher was supposed to return itI really hate this blame excuse, because I do have one or two ELA teachers that have students stack library books to return near the classroom door and pick a new book from the classroom library. At some point before the teacher remembers to bring the books to me, someone else sees the book and takes it from the stack to read.

I figure it’s up to the student and teacher to work this out, so I tell the student to talk to their teacher for permission to return to the classroom for the book. If no, then I do an overdue bookmark to remind the student to check for the book in class the next day.

You’ll note that, during a book checkout, students whose accounts show an overdue get an overdue bookmark with the book title written on it. The student sees this bookmark every time they’re reading their current book and it prompts them to look for the overdue one and return it. I do run overdue notices at periodic intervals, but these bookmarks allow a face-to-face conversation and tend to bring books back much more quickly.

Overdue Notice Bookmarks

You can download my Overdue Bookmarks Template from my FREE Librarian Resources page.


Contrition is when a student admits to the overdue book but can’t return it for some reason. These excuses are easy to handle because the student accepts responsibility and just needs an opportunity to retrieve the book or a reminder to bring it back to the library. The worst thing we can do with these excuses is make a big deal about them, so I laugh and take them in stride.

contrition-it's in my lockerThis is the typical excuse when a student has forgotten it’s a library day. I created a special ‘Library to Locker for Overdue Book’ pass and I hand one to the student so they can get their book and return it. I have 6 numbered passes, so I limit how many students are out and about during the period.

contrition-I left it in my classroomI know this seems like a dumb excuse since the student just came from the classroom, but it proves my quip about middle schoolers being ‘brain dead’. I tell the student to ask the teacher’s permission to return to the classroom. The teacher knows these students better than I do, so they know who is trustworthy enough to allow this. If they don’t, the student gets the overdue bookmark and I get the book dropped off right after the class period or the next day at the start of the class period.

contrition-I forgot to bring it back to schoolThis is an easy excuse to handle with some sympathy and the overdue bookmark. Often I’ll have the student leave a phone message to remind themselves to bring the book back to school. The kids find this funny; I find it works.

contrition-I think I lost my book


Sometimes a student says this as I pull up their account on the computer. When the book doesn’t show up on their account, they’re thrilled that it’s been turned in.it's here, you found it

I got a book with legs

When the book still shows on their account as overdue, I ask when and how they lost the book as I fill out the overdue bookmark. We need to accept that students misplace things—after all, they’re still learning to become adults. I joke that the book must have been partying with the other books, and hand them their new book. The student laughs and says ‘yes, Ms. P, it’s a book with legs!‘ The book routinely turns up later on and is returned.


Kids are busy. We adults have a single focus—our subject—and we often fail to appreciate that students must re-calibrate their brains 6 or 8 times a day as they gear up for different subjects with different teachers, and in secondary, in different classrooms. If they forget to return a book to the school library, we can surely be forgiving, especially since harsh repercussions don’t work and only serve to alienate student readers. I’ve found 3 benevolent (although controversial) tactics that I believe we can all adopt:

  • Get rid of overdue book fines. Whatever the original reasoning behind this, it doesn’t work. Fines keep books out of circulation and discourage students from returning books and checking out new ones to read, the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.
  • Always allow a student to check out a book. We can limit a student to a single book if they have overdues, but depriving a student of a book does nothing IN THE MOMENT to get that overdue back. Rather, it creates ill feeling toward us and the school library, and that’s just plain bad policy.
  • Quit thinking they’re “our” books, or even “the school’s” books. In a school library, the books belong to the students! They are provided for them and we are only the ‘warehouse manager’. A Facebook comment from School Librarian Jen M. Hash-Staley convinced me:

I always have missing books at the end of the year, I don’t let it bother me much anymore. Tax paying parents funded the purchase, so I like to think that they are enjoying a tax rebate. Crazy talk I know.

So, I’m just saying that we need to figure out congenial ways to cajole students into returning overdue books. Having a friendly, non-judgmental policy toward overdues will increase both circulation and reading, and go a long way toward building positive attitudes toward the school library.

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Looking @ an Expanded View of “Library Orientation”

Looking @ an Expanded View of “Library Orientation” - School Librarians can make every library visit powerful if we remember that EVERY subject-area's “first” library visit of the school year is a “library orientation” for THEM! Here's how I do unique orientation lessons with 6 different subjects. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #libraryorientation #ELA #socialstudies #deweydecimals #math #onlineresources #science #visualarts #worldlanguagesWe School Librarians sense the importance of our students’ first library visit, so each year as the beginning of school approaches, “library orientation” becomes a hot topic on library listservs, social media, and blogs. Folks request ideas, asking, “What can I do differently this year?”

A couple years after I simplified and customized my school library orientations with English Language Arts classes, I came to an astounding realization:

EVERY subject-area’s “first” library visit of the school year is a “library orientation” for THEM!

I’m suggesting that you don’t need to keep trying new things every year with the same subject class. Rather, expand your view of what “library orientation” means and have an “orientation” lesson with every single grade level and subject area in your building!

Allow me share how I developed a series of “library orientations” that brought 6th grade ELA, Social Studies, Math, Science, and Elective classes into the library at various intervals during the first several weeks of school. Once you try this, I know you’ll love it, and your subject area teachers feel pretty special having their very own unique library orientation customized to their content. (Even as an elementary librarian, we can focus each class’s visit on new library materials or features, so it’s a like another orientation.)


I’ve written about how I simplified my 6th grade library orientation, so students aren’t overwhelmed with too much new information. Keep in mind that for lowest-grade-level, new-to-the-school students, our school library is completely new to them, and our lesson is “fresh” for them, even if we’ve done it a dozen times! Because each new year is a totally new group of students, I’m as enthusiastic about this lesson as I was the first time.

Our ELA classes begin the year studying narrative text, so we focus on how to choose one good book from the new-to-them Fiction area. My lesson is followed by plenty of time to browse the Fiction area of this “new” library, after which we have extended silent reading while I do a quiet invited checkout. This standard procedure establishes a reading culture for ELA’s every-other-week library visits for the rest of the school year.


After the ELA visit, we can bring in other 6th grade subject-area classes and offer them a “library orientation” customized to their particular content. I’ve written about my Special Collections for Social Studies, so I invite 6th grade Social Studies classes to visit a couple weeks after ELA to learn more about their “new” school library: the GlobeTrekkers collection of Fiction & Dewey books that support their study of World Cultures.

The first part of the lesson is book returns and library expectations, continuing students’ introduction to their “new” school library. Then I introduce Content Area Reading and why it is important.

Educators have learned that reading comprehension isn’t so much about word recognition as it is about conceptual understanding in context. That is, students become better readers as they accrue background knowledge of various topics, so the more they read, the more they know.

Yes, Dr. Seuss instinctively told us this years ago in his book
“I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!” and it just took brain researchers a while to confirm that.

Now I don’t tell all this to kids…I just tell them that the more GlobeTrekkers books they read, the better they’ll do in Social Studies and get better grades!

Photo of the GlobeTrekkers Special Collection for 6g Social StudiesI show them how to identify GlobeTrekker books in the search results from our online book catalog, and when they hear they can check out a GlobeTrekker Dewey book and, if needed, a fiction selection for their ELA class they are excited to begin browsing. We follow the same procedure—silent reading & invited checkout—which reinforces with Social Studies the reading culture that was established with ELA.


I’ve also written how it makes sense to do our Dewey lesson with math classes and focus on locating decimal numbers on the bookshelves. When 6th grade Math classes enter the library, students are so puzzled about what they are doing here…with their math class? That, in itself, sustains engagement for students—who apparently have never done anything like this before.

Keeping the lesson about numbers makes it easy for students to relate the Dewey number they see in a book search to a location on a shelf, regardless of the topical content of the book. After the lesson there is plenty of time for students to browse for a couple of new books, either Fiction or Dewey, and the 6th grade boys are especially eager to find their favorite informational books in this “new” school library: aliens, cars, sports, and drawing, as well as the Guinness and Believe-It-Or-Not books. Then we follow our standard procedure, which reinforces with Math the reading culture we established with ELA and Social Studies.

Notice how we progressively give “newbies” what they need to effectively use their “new” school library, how we establish our school’s reading culture with silent sustained reading (we call ours DEAR—Drop Everything And Read), and how we gradually build up the number and type of books students can check out. All this ensures they are not overwhelmed with too much new information or too many books to keep track of during the early weeks of their new school experience.


By now our 6th grade Science classes are into their unit on Energy that ends the 1st grading period with a project on alternative energy resources. The timing is perfect for an introduction to our middle school online subscription services, which are completely different from those in elementary school.

Most “newbies” come to us from feeder elementaries, but many are new-to-district students. Thus, I begin this “online library orientation” with Digital Citizenship and direct students to our online library resources webpage to prepare for the WebQuest lesson.

I’ve written about my guided WebQuest that introduces just 3 subscription services to 6th graders—an encyclopedia, a periodical database, a topical reference e-book—with each segment looking only at the specific features of a service they’ll need for the project.

This is a full-period lesson, and each segment has students reading for content information and citing sources as they fill in the WebQuest worksheet (or HyperDoc). Students come away well-prepared to research their project, and I also provide a cart of books for the classroom to supplement the online tools.Scaffold Library Learning with a 4-Subject Orientation!

To illustrate how favorably teachers respond to customized lessons, shortly after this, 6g Social Studies has an “online orientation” WebQuest using our countries of the world databases. Students gather country data into a spreadsheet app for comparison, and then learn to automatically generate a graph.


By this time we are well into the school year, yet I’m not done. Remember: any subject-area class that visits the library for the first time gets a “library orientation.” So, I begin the 2nd grading period with “online orientations,” customized for 6g Art and 6g Spanish.

Both these lesson visits feature our online email service, with a focus on Cloud Computing & Netiquette. It’s a guided lesson, similar to the WebQuest, that examines 3 features of the service: email, blogging, and discussion forums. I always let the other 6g teachers know when I do this popular lesson, so they can begin using the service for their own courses.


I’ve written, too, that making ELA and Math orientations about location allows me to bring other subject areas into the library for content-specific lessons. In this case, 6g Science returns during their Classification & Organization unit to explore the 590 Animals section of Dewey, whose disciplinary organization mirrors that of science. This “content orientation” focuses on the parts of informational books so students can dig into such books to extract what they need.


Lest you think I ignore our 7th and 8th graders, here’s a list of the “library orientations” I’m providing for them during this same time period:

  • 7g & 8g ELA – Fiction books
  • 8g History – the American colonies
  • 7g Math – adding/subtracting decimals & Dewey books
  • 7g TX History – First Texans cooperative learning
  • 7/8 Theater – multicultural folktales to create one-act plays
  • 7g TX History – explorers WebQuest
  • 8g Spanish – weather report & intro to video broadcasting
  • 8g Health, 8g Careers – books, ebooks, online services & websites

I know you may not think of these in terms of “orientations,” but when we view each library visit as an entirely new experience for that group of students in that subject class, all our lessons become “library orientations.”


I’ve discovered it doesn’t matter how good a librarian students have had before they arrive in our school. These “library orientation” lessons are always powerful because they are bite-sized pieces, scaffolded over time, helping students gradually learn—and remember—how to use every aspect of our library services.

To make successful, carefully crafted lessons, we must have a comprehensive view of each grade level’s total library experience, for both subject-area curricula and the library curriculum. I created my Curriculum Matrix for just this reason, keep it updated, and use it constantly.

Our attitude toward “library orientation” is a reflection of our mindset about our entire School Library Program. We want every student experience with us to be a memorable one, offering meaningful lessons that never get old.

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Looking @ How To Propose Library Lessons to Teachers

Looking @ How To Propose Library Lessons to Teachers - There are lots of great library lessons, but unless we can get teachers to bring students to the library, those lessons just stagnate in our file drawers. Here's how we can invite teachers to have their students participate in meaningful library visits. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #librarylessons #teachercollaborationWe all come up with new ideas for school library activities—or we get them from other librarians—and many seem fun and educational for students. If the library is part of student scheduling, we can present a variety of these lessons at regular intervals, but for most of us, the biggest obstacle to implementing our ideas is how to get teachers to accept a lesson and bring classes to the library.

We can’t expect teachers to waste their constrained class time on something that is “just fun.” We must convince them a library lesson visit is relevant to what students are studying in the classroom. So, whenever I find or imagine a great lesson idea, I ask myself 3 questions:

  1. What subject curriculum standard does this best support?
  2. How do I make the lesson irresistible to teachers and students?
  3. Who are my most accommodating teachers in this subject?


If we expect teachers to bring students to the library, we must offer something that will enhance classroom activity, not take time away from it. Even if a lesson serves a good library purpose, it’s only useful if we can tie it to a subject standard. This is where knowledge of subject curriculum is essential, and to help me choose the best subject to support, I use my Library Lesson Matrix which documents topics being studied in subject-area classrooms during the school year.

Once I decide which subject is best suited for the lesson idea, I then fill in my Library Lesson Planner with the subject’s Standards. If you’ve not already downloaded PDFs of national standards for the various curricula, here are links to some of them:

NoSweat Library Lesson Planner Template - page 1The next step is to fill in the Library Lesson Planner with subject-area Understandings, Key Questions, and Objectives so the teacher sees at a glance how the lesson aligns to their curriculum. We can usually find those from scope & sequence documents or teacher lesson plans. These additional entries go a long way toward convincing a teacher that we’ve planned a lesson to enhance their classroom activities and engage students in worthwhile learning.

Only after doing subject entries do I add the library Standards, Understandings, Key Questions, Objectives, and so on. I follow the same guidelines I use for any Library Lesson:

  1. Focus on a single objective.
  2. Teach only what students need for the time they are in front of me.
  3. Give students an activity that allows them to practice what they’ve learned.
  4. Avoid anything that does not achieve the purpose of the visit.

My teachers appreciate having a role in the lesson presentation, so I try to incorporate that into my Instruction Plan. When students see us teaching together, they learn that the school librarian is respected by their teacher as a partner.


I read a lot of activity ideas on listservs and blogs, I hear about them at meetings, trainings, and conferences; what grabs my attention are hands-on sorting or game-type activities, unique handicraft products, or lessons that have students using technology. These activities also appeal to teachers and they’ll get students excited and engaged.

To inspire the teacher, I create a sample of the game or handicraft or print screen-shots of the technology so they can see what students will be doing. This extra step is the clincher for the teacher accepting the lesson…and often the stimulus for others to want a library lesson when the teacher shows the sample around! (I can use the sample during the lesson to model with students…that is, if I can get it back!)

An Organization Tools Sorting activity for Concept Attainment

Organization tools sorting activity

Hands-on activities are a necessary alternative to technology in schools with a large digital divide. I’ve written about my favorite foldables—the biocube, the basketweave for summarizing, and the versatile accordion book. I use a concept attainment sorting activity for my 6g Library Orientation and I also use a sorting activity for a 6g lesson on organization tools.


Once we create our Library Lesson Plan, we can seek out a “friendly” teacher in that subject and give them a printout of our Plan along with the sample activity. Even as a new librarian to our school, we already have teachers who are strong library supporters. If we’re really fortunate, we’ll have a few subject “buddies” who are always willing to try any idea for a library visit.

Just as we need time to ponder a teachers’ ideas for us, the teacher needs time to consider ours, and giving them the Lesson Plan lets them do that. Supportive teachers will give an honest response on the efficacy of our idea and, if yes, convince their teaching partners to try it. They can also help us refine our lesson presentation to be even better and more relevant.


Once we convince a teacher to let us do our lesson, we want to implement the best delivery. If we give a slide presentation, make it illustrative and minimize text. Use the Notes feature to create the dialogue/script and print that out as a prompt during the presentation.  And keep it short–fewer than a dozen slides–so students have plenty of time for the activity. (See Modeling Digital Literacy for a full explanation and a handout.)

We want to minimize downtime, so have activity items or craft supplies already on tables and have computers ready for login. Borrow extra wastebaskets and put next to tables to minimize student “travels”. (My custodian always has a half dozen or so extra wastebaskets for teachers to borrow.)

Finally, after the lesson, ask the teacher for input on ways to improve. When we do that, teachers will want to bring students year after year for our lessons, and will come to us to ask when they can schedule library visits into their lesson plans!

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You can download my Library Lesson Planner template
as a Word document and as a PDF from my FREE Librarian Resources page. 

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