For several years now, I have seen a steady increase in the number of chronic long overdue items by my school library users. After surveying my local professional learning community (PLC) group, I realize I am not alone in dealing with this issue. Working with a strategic goal that I developed last school year, I wanted to evaluate my circulation practices to see what factors contribute to the increase in lost and long overdue checked out items.
School Profile: middle school in Charlotte, NC, with more than 1,400 students enrolled situated in an urban community setting with more than 100 full-time staff members employed. I am the only librarian at this location, and I am responsible for both school library media and technology. I am fortunate to have a part-time assistant and a strong parent volunteer group to assist with day-to-day functions and related tasks for the library. The primary student patron population consist of 9.4% Hispanic, 24.2% Black, 61.6% White, and 4.8% Other; the Economically Disadvantaged account for 34%. Basically, a typical urban school setting.
In seeking to understand potential best practices, I first addressed issues with fines. Our school district does charge fines, but I implemented a procedure where students can volunteer to receive a fine waiver. I also allowed students to donate new or gently used books appropriate for the library as a replacement for lost books. This new practice does help to eliminate about 30% of the overdue issues. But I also found that students have to be reminded regularly about their books to avoid the end-of-year lost book confusion. Using our library automation system (Follett Destiny), I set up a bi-weekly email notification report that would deliver reminders to students with overdue items. I also create a monthly email report for homeroom teachers and asked that they review the report with their students to help expedite the return of books.
Using inspiration from a blog post from the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom that appeared last year, “Overdue Fees: Barriers to Access in School Libraries” by Dr. April Dawkins, I now recognize that the issue with overdue books and materials stem from “how can we teach responsibility without restricting access to library materials?” Ideally, I want students to have ownership for the use and care of the materials that they decide to borrow from the library. I also believe that penalizing them for overdue items creates a lasting negative impression on how students see the school library.
Starting this school year, I’ve implemented a new system that uses the checkout receipt printer approach, which enables each student to have a printed list of what is checked out on their account and due date information. We use this system with our monitored self-checkout station, and it is working well. Based upon my initial analysis, the student return-on-time rate has improved by almost 20%, and our backlog of long overdue items has decreased by also roughly 20%. This is a positive sign that I hope will result in a significant reduction in long overdue and lost book problems that appear before the end of the school year. We also use a date stamper and book return due-date slips. We encourage students to keep up with these checkout notices as a bookmark, which seems to be working (based upon all the slips that I see still in books when they are returned).
Ultimately, the greatest advantage to our new approach for addressing overdue is the perception that students continue to recognize their role as responsible citizens and that they have the ability to resolve overdue issues without having to worry about fines and unnecessary fees.
Author: Dr. Kevin M. Washburn
School Library Media Specialist: Charlotte NC
Information Literacy Researcher
Children’s Literature Advocate
Adjunct Faculty: UNC Greensboro