Overdue School Library Books & How to Handle Student Excuses

Overdue library books are a perpetual problem for School Librarians. Here are some typical excuses from students, and a friendly, non-judgmental way to deal with them that promotes student reading and sustains book circulation. | No Sweat LibraryThroughout the school year, School Librarians tackle the recurring and everlasting problem of students with overdue library books. Each school seems to have its 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 library book.

These excuses can be especially troublesome when the student is at the circulation desk and we’re trying to check out books for 30—or 60—students before the end of a period. However, if we understand the underlying cause of these overdue excuses, we can respond calmly and more productively. Whether you are elementary, middle school, or high school, when we tell a student they have an overdue library book, the ‘reasons’ offered come in 3 forms: avoidance, blame, or contrition.


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

avoidance excuse: I don't remember that book. The “I don’t remember that book” excuse is a spur-of-the-moment avoidance response. I tell the student the date the book was checked out, grab one of my handy Overdue Notice 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 excuse: I don't know where it is, The “I don’t know where it is” excuse 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 excuse: I never checked that out. With the “I never checked that book out” 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 excuse: I already returned that book. The classic “I already returned that book” excuse is often a bluff in hopes we’ll let it go. Since even super-librarians make check-in mistakes, I grab a sticky note, write the call number and title, and give it to the student, telling them to go find it on the shelf and bring it to me. If it is a check-in mistake, I apologize and scan the book, making a joke about ‘these darn computers’ or, in my case, ‘this gray hair.’ If they can’t find the book, I follow the usual procedure with the Overdue Notice 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, and now I make a lot of mistakes because my brains are leaking out, 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.

Someone stole it!” is the universal middle school answer for anything that’s missing. If your school is like mine, a few library books do get shuffled around in the gym or cafeteria, so I simply sigh and sympathize that it happened, as I’m filling in the title on that handy overdue bookmark. Sympathy defuses the fear and when I hand the student the bookmark I tell them to take another look for it…just in case it’s in a locker or at home. blame excuse: Someone stole it!

The “I gave it to my friend to read and she’ll return it” excuse sounds like such a noble gesture, but it really shifts the burden of responsibility to another student. I ask if the other person is in the library, and if so, have them bring the book up to check it in and then I can check out 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 bring either 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 excuse: I gave it to my friend to read & she'll return it.
The “Are you sure I checked that book out?” excuse implies the problem is our fault, but we can maintain our cool. I remind the student that we use our IDs for checkout so a mistake is unlikely, but since it is possible, they can help me by looking around a bit for the book, in their locker or at home, and I hand them the overdue bookmark with the title and the checkout date. blame excuse: Are you sure I checked that out?

I lament the “My teacher was supposed to return it” blame excuse, because I do have ELA teachers who tell students to put library books to return near their classroom door. Often other students grab a book they want to read before the teacher can return it.

I have no control over this, so I tell the student to ask the teacher for permission to get the books from the classroom. If no, then I do an overdue bookmark and remind the student to check for the book in class the next day. Eventually someone does return it.

blame excuse: My teacher was supposed to return it.

If your overdue notices aren't getting school library books returned, read how this School Librarian uses these crazy bookmarks for better results. And you can download the templates from my FREE Librarian Resources page! | No Sweat LibraryYou’ll note that, during a book checkout, students whose accounts show an overdue get an Overdue Notice Bookmark with the book title written on it. Why do I use this method? Because 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 friendly face-to-face conversation and tend to bring books back much more quickly.

Join my e-mail group to download a sample of 10 Overdue Notice Bookmarks from my exclusive e-Group Library of FREEbies!


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 excuse: It's in my locker... It’s in my locker…” 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, to limit how many students are out and about during the period.
contrition excuse: I left it in the classroom. I know “I left it in the classroom” seems silly since the student just came from the classroom, but it proves my belief that middle schoolers are ‘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, and who is trustworthy enough to allow this. If they don’t, the student gets the overdue bookmark and I usually get the book dropped off right after the class period or the next day at the start of the class period.
contrition excuse: I forgot to bring it back to school! I forgot to bring it back to school!” is an easy excuse to handle with some sympathy and the Overdue Notice bookmark. If it’s a long-time overdue, 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 excuse I think I lost my book.

Often a student says “I think I lost my book” as I pull up their account on the computer and they know they have somehow misplaced a book.

It's here? You found it?When I tell them the book doesn’t show up on their account at all, they’re thrilled that it’s been turned back in to the library!

Ms. P, I got a book with legs!! If the ‘lost’ book does show as overdue, I ask when they last saw 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!” We all have a good laugh and the book routinely turns up later on and is returned.


Each morning during the last week of a grading period, I take a bookcart to a hallway where kids are getting into their lockers before first period. Reciting my mantra, “Library books, collecting library books!” as I walk down the hall, kids grab books and put them on the cart. I do 2 hallways each morning, so by the end of the week I’ve done all 9 hallways, and collected huge numbers of books. This tactic does solve many overdues.

Keep in mind that 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 for different subjects with different teachers in different classrooms. If they forget to return a school library book, we can be forgiving, especially since harsh repercussions don’t work and only alienate student readers. I’ve found 3 benevolent tactics that I believe we can all adopt:

  • Get rid of overdue book fines. Whatever the original reasoning behind fines, they don’t work. Fines keep books out of circulation, and they 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 resentment toward us and ill feeling about the school library, and may cause the student to have more confrontation with their teacher who wants them to have a book. All of this is just plain bad public relations.
  • 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 with public funding, 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.

Going ballistic over overdues does nothing good. 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.

And remember, a student is always more valuable than a book!

You can find the complete set of 35 Overdue Notice Bookmarks in No Sweat Library, my Teachers Pay Teachers store! School Librarians can get overdue books returned more quickly and without generating resentment by using these Overdue Notice Bookmarks. This product is a PDF file with 35 unique bookmarks, 7 pages of 5 bookmarks each. | No Sweat Library

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Best Advice Ever for a School Librarian

Best Advice Ever for a School Librarian - School Librarians get wonderful ideas from staff meetings, professional trainings, seminars, conferences, and planning sessions, but the best advice I've gotten for my job has been from the most unlikely people and incidents! #NoSweatLibraryThroughout my more than 25 years as a classroom Science Teacher and then as a School Librarian I’ve attended dozens of staff meetings, professional trainings, seminars, conferences, and planning sessions. I get wonderful ideas from all of these experiences, many of which I used in classroom and library with students.

But it seems the best advice I’ve gotten about my job has been, not from fellow professionals, but from the most unlikely of people and incidents: a sub, a student, a saleslady, an inclusion specialist, and my son.


This nugget of wisdom came from a library substitute who covered several days for me. As we were conversing on the phone afterward, she complimented me on how organized everything was in the library. I said I seemed to have a real knack for organizing things, but organizing my time was my downfall. I never seemed to get all the things done I needed to, and hadn’t found a way to make planning my day very effective or enjoyable. That’s when she shared the above. She explained that if we tackle our least pleasurable task when we’re fresh, we can get it done more quickly than if we postpone it to later in the day, and once it’s done, we feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence about tackling the rest of our daily tasks.

Later that day I made a sign and hung it above my desk. From that time on, it reminded me daily to determine the least likable task I had to do that day, and then get right to it. Best ever advice!


Out of the mouths of babes…
Both of these ingenious pieces of advice came from students when I was working on getting back overdue books. The first incident was with a young lady to whom I’d given an overdue notice. She asked to use the phone, and when I asked why, she said she was sure the book was at home, so she wanted to leave a reminder message on the answering machine so she’d look for it and bring it back. I was so enthused about that idea I began having all the students do it, though nowadays it’s leaving a message on their voicemail. In fact, I began using this method to remind myself of important things to do when I arrive home from work!

The second incident was with a young man. When I gave him the overdue notice, he proceeded to fold it up into a small square, remove a shoe, and place the folded note inside. I was stunned! He explained that he could feel the note, so when he got home and took off his shoe, the notice would remind him to find the book. He said he’d put the note back in his shoe overnight, so he’d see it before he put it on the next morning and it would remind him to bring the book with him to school. This was another idea I immediately adopted for students, especially those who didn’t have the phone option.

Pockets! image

This little gem came from a saleslady at The Container Store; she emphasized that she couldn’t function without having the pockets in her store-provided smock, and I realized pockets would simplify my job as well. From that day on I began purchasing only clothing that had pockets, and eventually donated items that didn’t have them because I’d quit wearing them to work. Now, all my dresses, skirts, and slacks have pockets!

5 Useful School Librarian Tips from Unusual Sources - A substitute, a student, a saleslady, a psychologist, and my son. Who'd have thought the best advice I ever got as a School Librarian would be from these unlikely sources. I think they'll help you, too! #NoSweatLibraryWith pockets I never misplace my keys. With pockets I always have a pen handy. With pockets I can always carry something I’ll need when going to copier, office, cafeteria (or snack machine), or a classroom. I even downsized my wallet so it fits in a pocket for a quick trip to the store! Yes, keys, phone, pen, sticky notes, USB drive, laser pointer, extra cable, paper clips, staple remover; you name it, we probably need it at some point during the day, so I encourage you to have pockets on your clothing (or an apron or smock with pockets) to carry stuff around. Just putting this out there again…POCKETS!


Any mother can tell you that if you don’t give kids something enjoyable to do, they’ll do something on their own that may not be as productive! When I came across this wonderful quote, from Kathie F. Nunley at Help4Teachers.com, I realized it, too, encapsulates my attitude about Library Lessons:

Children would rather do something than nothing. If they don’t enjoy the ‘something’ you give, they will entertain themselves with ‘something’ of their own device. That’s where the problems begin. By offering a wide range of activities and giving them in the form of choice, students perceive control over their situation, and engage themselves actively in the learning process.

I’ve said often that everything in the library is just an accessory for a Library Lesson. Lessons are why states require a teaching certificate to be a School Librarian. I learned quickly (and in middle school, quite emphatically) how important it is for students to have an enjoyable library visit, but I don’t do meaningless gimmick or frou-frou lessons just to fill time and avoid behavior problems. I want students to understand that the school library is a place for learning, not a funhouse. That’s why I keep these lesson tips in mind, and hope that you will also find them helpful:

  • Customize activities to the grade level and focus on a single objective with a purposeful activity that allows students to practice what they learn.Library Lesson Pointers - The school library is a place for learning. That's why I keep these lesson tips in mind, and hope that you will also find them helpful.
  • Teach only what students need for the short time they are in the library and avoid anything that does not achieve the purpose of the visit.
  • Focus on the library process, rather than content—how rather than what; let the subject or classroom topic be the what.
  • Have some kind of student document to keep kids on task and to turn in to teachers for a daily grade.


What we see depends mainly on what we look for. (John Lubbock, British statesman, 1834-1913)

The actual quote, from John Lubbock, British statesman (1834-1913) is “What we see depends mainly on what we look for,” and comes from my son, who helps me see beneath the surface to the true essence of things. Shortened by me, this profound insight became another sign on my wall that has most influenced planning my lessons, so what I’m giving students is meaningful, engaging, authentic, transferable learning of content and skills.

It also prompted me to quit thinking in terms of marketing “the library” or “the resources” or even “me the school librarian” and to market a specific lesson to a specific teacher so s/he will value a library visit and want more. It’s true that one-on-one takes time, but when a Library Lesson becomes part of a teacher’s Lesson Plan, they don’t want to sacrifice it, or you, when budget cuts threaten!

Finally, the quote helps me analyze various educational issues that crop up from time to time, whether locally or globally. I force myself to look beyond the quick-fix to the overall effect on all students and teachers. It is so rewarding when I share my perceptions and someone understands what I’m saying and pushes others to reconsider. It’s like getting a pat on the back from my son!

line of books laying down


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