Overdue Thoughts on Lost Book Fees

In elementary school, librarians try very, very hard to start the school year on the right foot with proactive book care lessons. We remind ourselves every September that for some of our kids, this may be the first time they’ve been to any library and checked out a book, so book care is necessary. We also know that accidents happen. They happen a lot with elementary-aged kids!

As you know if you’ve read my bio, I am a librarian at a Title 1 school. If a school has Title 1 funding, it means our percentage of kids who receive free or reduced price meals is high. In the past, I was pretty strict about lost library books. (We don’t charge fines for late books in elementary school in my district.) I would often preach that if a student checks out a book, then it is his or her responsibility to read it and return it. If a book was lost, the parents were sent invoices and payment was expected.

Since coming to my current school, I have had a change of heart. I still think kids need to learn responsibility; don’t get me wrong. It just may be that a library book is not the tool for this lesson. What about the student who:

  • Had to move into foster care abruptly?
  • Is homeless?
  • Goes between two different households?
  • Left the book on her desk at school and now it’s missing?
  • Left one apartment in the morning and moved into a different one in the afternoon?

All of these examples are not figments of my imagination. As I type this, I can picture the kids to whom this is real life. Is it a first-grader’s responsibility if she left her library book at her old house and now she can’t get back to retrieve it? Is it a fourth-grader’s responsibility to keep up with a library book when he had fifteen minutes to pack? I would argue no. As much as I like to think my students love books and value reading, I know that life gets in the way of that, and I cannot hold them responsible for events that happen to them. A quick study of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will confirm this. If a child is food insecure, then keeping track of one’s things just falls by the wayside. 

Instead of not allowing kids to check out books if they have lost one, I make deals. Key to this deal-making is looking at when the book was added to the collection and how many times it has been circulated. If a book cost $10.00 back in 2015 and has been circulated eighty times, I am not going to charge as much as if it were brand new. For a brand new book, I still try to see what the parents can afford. I call the parents and try to make a personal connection with them. I have accepted payment plans, partial payments, and student time helping me in the library for lost books.

I saw a gif this summer that reads, “The goal of a library is not to get back all the books, but all the readers” (quote attributed to Doug Johnson, 2013). It was definitely an a-ha moment for me. My goal is to encourage and grow readers at my elementary school. Fines may be necessary as a last resort, but flexibility is also necessary.

Works Cited:

BFTP: Your library’s back-to-school letter – Home – Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2013/8/3/bftp-your-librarys-back-to-school-letter.html/

McLeod, S. (n.d.). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html


Author: Elizabeth Kyser

H!! I am the lucky librarian at Ettrick Elementary School, located in Chesterfield County, Virginia. I graduated with a degree in History from Allegheny College, received a Master of Education degree from Loyola University in Maryland, and my library certification classes were taken at Longwood University. I was a classroom teacher for fourteen years before I became a school librarian and I am so glad I was. Please feel free to find me on social media. I am energized by sharing ideas with colleagues from around the world!

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Collection Development

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2 replies

  1. Dear Ms. Kyser,

    Having been a librarian in a Title 1 and college-prep, private school for young students (now retired and missing it!), I have always felt that there needs to be a balance between responsibility and an open-heart. Like you, we billed for lost books at the end of the year or asked families to replace the missing items by purchasing gently used copies if they could not afford a new one.

    But, oftentimes, I just had a student “work off” the debt by arranging with him or her dates and times that he or she needed to show up in the library for odd jobs from arranging books in Dewey order on the cart, to sharpening pencils. My feeling was that imbuing the student with the sense of responsibility in a way that is appropriate for their ages, schedules etc. gave them a sense of “ownership” of the library. This was more far-reaching that just replacing the item.

    A good post. Thank you.

  2. Thank you. I often feel that we are punishing younger children for circumstances not of their choosing and that defeats the vision and goal of our libraries. Sometimes I hear “it’s always the same family” but that just tells me we need to build stronger relationships with those parents in the community to teach them about the value of the libraries. Again, why punish the child for poor parenting skills? They didn’t choose their parents. Thank you for this article. I will share.

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