Every 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:
This 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.’
This 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.
With 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.
This 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.
This 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.
This 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.
This 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.
I 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.
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.
This 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.
I 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.
This 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.
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.
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.
DO WE REALLY NEED A “SOLUTION”?
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.