It’s NOT All about the Benjamins…
School is starting back up, which means students are going to be visiting their school libraries. Yay! I am all about helping students find and grow their passion for reading. Unfortunately, year after year I see students who want to take out a book, but have their accounts suspended because of outstanding fines or late fees. Those students often walk away with heads hung low. They might be sad that they can’t continue reading a great book they’ve found. They might be embarrassed that they don’t have the money to pay the fine. They may be discouraged that the librarian thinks they aren’t responsible. But even if that student walked away with head held high, there’s something that student definitely is not: That student is not able to continue reading that book.
The reasons given for fines on late or missing materials are plentiful. But librarians need to ask themselves: Are the fines charged equivalent to the loss of reading incurred by students?
Keep Books Accessible!
For lots of students, the school library is their main source of fresh reading material. Even if they are lucky enough to live in a house where books are plentiful, students need the school library. Students in book-rich environments still want new materials — in fact, they may explore new titles even more! Keeping students engaged with the process of reading means keeping reading materials in kids’ hands.
If they aren’t able to use the school library to get reading material, students might be out of luck. There are actually some serious barriers to students’ ability to get reading materials if they are not able to utilize their school library.
If students can’t use the school library, one issue they face might be finding the time to get to a book-having location. Forget the long-standing myth that childhood and adolescence is a time of leisure and enjoyment. Students have jam-packed schedules. There are school-related requirements like homework and projects. They have extracurricular activities like sports and clubs and music lessons. There are the social obligations required to maintain friendships and relationships. They have family obligations. There are mealtimes. All of these make access to school library books very appealing to students. When students are able to take advantage of school libraries, they are more likely to read!
Another issue students face might be the distance to their nearest book-supplying location. For students in rural or suburban areas, bookstores and public libraries might be prohibitively far for students. This is especially true if they do not have easy access to transportation — parents are not always willing or able to meet students’ in-the-moment reading needs with a trip to the library or bookstore. And many students are not able to transport themselves. Even urban areas with higher numbers of book-accessibility locations may not be traversable by students.
And even if there are book depots within a student’s range, the student may not know it’s there. (Have you met students? I find it impressive that some of them know where their knees are.) And proportionally few of us are working with students who are able to transport themselves.
But all students need to spend time in school. The school library is the most likely point of access to new materials for most students.
Some students simply don’t have the money to pay fees and fines. And the students who are least able to pay off a late fee or missing book fine are also the students who would benefit the most from being able to continue borrowing books.
If students aren’t able to pay a fine for a late school library book, they are also not very likely to buy a book or pay off public library fines. School library fines and fees disproportionately punish economically disadvantaged students.
Abolish late fees and lost book fines. All they do is place a financial burden on kids who want to read. Unless a student has a habitual problem with lateness or losing materials, it seems cruel to burden them in such a way.
The Best Things In Life Are (or Should Be) Free
To be honest, I hadn’t given this issue as much thought as I should until I came across a Twitter thread from school librarian Cicely Lewis. She tweets from @cicelythegreat as “readwoke.” Cicely noticed a ninth grader engaged by a book she was looking at. Cicely offered to check the book out for her. The student explained she’d lost a book in kindergarten and could no longer check out books. When the girl tried to take out books in middle school, she was also denied due to her loss of that book years before. The girl was overjoyed when Cicely checked out her books and assured her she could do so from then on, regardless of previous losses or fines.
I’m not arguing that school libraries should hand out free books for every student to keep. But schools should supply students with learning opportunities. It’s important not to hold students to impossible standards. We all make mistakes. We all lose things. If it’s not a pattern or a habit, school librarians should accept students losing materials as part of the cost of doing business.
When we let the cost of a book come between a student and their ability to read, we are directly contradicting the purpose of being in education.
Author: Steve Tetreault
Steve has been teaching middle school English for 20 years, has several degrees in education, and recently finished his last semester as a school library media specialist student. He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!