Suspending Borrowing Privileges

Q: What do you think about the practice of prohibiting students from checking out books if they have lost or seriously overdue library materials? My school has a two-strikes-and-you’re out policy, after which students can still use the library but can’t check materials out.

Your question is rooted in the dilemma that every school library media specialist faces: how to balance the need to provide unrestricted access to materials in the school library media center with the costs associated with replacing lost or missing materials and the desire as educators to help children and teens learn responsibility and accountability.

Access to resources in the LMC are in an integral component of student’s educational experience—it is a First Amendment right, not a privilege. It is important to keep this right at the forefront of thinking when dealing with lost and overdue items. (For more on this, see the American Library Association’s “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” At the same time, that right comes with the responsibility to care for and return materials in a timely manner. When students don’t fulfill their responsibility, library media specialists need to have a plan for how they will respond.

You don’t say whether the response at your school is based on a board-approved policy or informal practice. First and foremost, if your school or district has board-approved policies and procedures for handling lost and overdue or damaged items, you must follow them. If there are board-approved policies for you to follow, we hope they emphasize the concepts of access and accountability, as opposed to denial and punishment. The same can be said for any informal policies and procedures you’ve developed if you don’t have anything official to follow.

Whether you are following board-approved policies or informal procedures, we hope the response to any student with an overdue item will start with communication, compassion, and the assumption that they want to do the right thing. Talk to the student privately to make sure s/he understands the book was due.

You might do this right away for younger students, whereas with older elementary students and those in middle and high school you might wait until a second notice is given. You will probably learn a lot from this encounter whenever it takes place—-maybe the student shuttles between two homes and isn’t sure which home the book is located. Maybe the book is in a desk or buried in a backpack. Maybe it was borrowed by a friend. You may sense the student is worried, or think that s/he sees it as “no big deal.” Regardless, let the student know you have faith in their good intentions to return the material, and see if they need help or support in making that happen.

The accountability component is one that can require flexibility and creative thinking on the part of a library media specialist, school, and district, especially because the age of the student, as well as factors such as family economics, can play such a big role in the situation.

We hope that whatever accountability system is set up to handle materials that are, indeed determined to lost (which should include clearly defining at what point “overdue” is considered “lost”) is one that creates an equal playing field for all students. For example, you might have several options for students/families to choose from when an item has been lost, such as paying for it outright, replacing it, or working off the cost in the library (think ahead about the system for this: will they “earn” $5 for every hour of work?).

If students take responsibility by fulfilling one of the options provided, then they retain full borrowing privileges. Likewise, you might not prohibit students from checking books out of the library, but you might limit them to using them at school—an option which clearly requires the support and involvement of classroom teachers or others on staff.

If it’s been determined that there is a point at which borrowing privileges will be suspended or modified (e.g., a student can check a book out, but it must stay in the classroom), then we hope that not only will it be made clear that the LMC resources are still available for the student to use on site, as you do in your school, but also that students have the opportunity to restore their full borrowing privileges at any time by fulfilling one of the options for replacing lost items.

We also hope and assume that every student begins the school year with full borrowing privileges, regardless of what happened in the prior year(s).

Some schools and public libraries have set up an honor book system, using a collection of gently used or new books (obtained from book club points). Students can borrow, take home and return these even if other borrowing privileges are temporarily suspended. If one is lost, it’s not as much of a burden on the library budget as losing a hardcover title.

We also hope that whatever system you/your district does set up is clearly communicated to students, parents, and teachers at the start of each school year. Do this in a positive, proactive way. A brochure or letter home can:

• describe the LMC as an essential part of the educational experience that provides materials to support the curriculum and for students’ recreational reading;

• discuss the rights of students to have access to materials and the responsibility that comes with borrowing items from this shared resource; and, finally,

• acknowledge that accidents and mistakes do occasionally happen, and clearly delineate the options students and families have when something is lost, or damaged beyond use.

We know this doesn’t address the fiscal reality of having to replace lost items when reimbursement or replacement costs aren’t paid—an unfortunate budgetary reality that every library media specialist faces. There is simply no way to recover all the costs because some students and families simply can’t pay them. But communicating expectations about library materials, assuming that students want to fulfill those expectations, and working with those who fall short is away to emphasize the value of library media center resources and the students who use them.

March, 2010