Where’s My Book? by Arika Dickens

“Mom, where’s my book?”


A couple of years ago, my then-kindergarten son asked this question.  No amount of searching could unearth the missing book from his school library, so we took $4.00 from his bank and paid the lost item cost.  He was, naturally, frustrated – both that the book was missing and that he had to pay for it.  He had seen me pay my public library fines (for which there are too many to list) with a mixture of frustration and acceptance over the years. But in both instances, we were able to take care of the lost book fees and fines without hardship or worry.  What about those who can’t?  What about the children who ask “Mom, where’s my book?”, and know that not finding it equates to not getting another one, possibly ever?  What then?


It is a privilege, borrowing books from public, school, and classroom libraries.  But for too many, the privilege comes with costly strings.


Some of these strings limit consumption.  I’ll be the first to admit I’ve set low limits on circulation in my years as a school librarian, something I’m strongly reconsidering when I start a new job in the fall.  What is the purpose of such limits? Do the really foster responsibility, or do they restrict access?  I wonder what would happen if school and class libraries had no limits, opening the collection for students to check out what they needed without worrying if they have too many books checked out?  At the very least, circ numbers would increase. I’d hedge a bet that overall library use and reading levels would show positive gains, too.


Other strings are financial in nature.  While my districts never charged fines for overdue books, plenty have – including the high school I attended.  As a student, I lived in terror of returning books late, as the $0.10 per book per day added up way too fast.  And lost book fines? Even worse.  But here I have sat, guilty of attaching lost item fines to accounts and withholding yearbooks until fees are paid, because it’s the standard operating procedure.  But the perceived gains – the $15 or so added to the budget– is vastly outweighed by the negative experience of the child and family.  What if, instead of sticking to hard overdue fines and lost item fees like the now-defunct Blockbuster Video, we thought in different ways?  One public library I know has a “food for fines” program, forgiving $1.00 of library fines for every food item donated during the drive.  Another option: schools could ask students/families to pay a “suggested donation” fee if items were lost, rather than attaching a hard lost-item fee to their transcript.


I bet some of you are thinking of the families who will ignore the suggestion and not pay – I know it comes to my mind – so here are two items for thought.  One: most of our kids, our families, have the best intentions at heart regarding using our collections.  When books aren’t returned, it is rarely for malicious reasons.  Two: books go missing in every collection each year, and fines go unpaid each year.  This is a known fact for anyone in a school, but too often we don’t include this inevitable loss as a line item in our budgets.  It is something that we should and can plan for, these losses, like a successful business would.


After teaching across the US in both public and private schools with a variety of socio-economic and diverse populations, I’ve seen both sides of these situations: setting limits and charging fees to preserve a collection versus allowing flexible thinking to dictate the rules.  And the more I think about it, the more I find myself considering what is lost by the limits and (in the grand scheme of things) petty fees. By keeping tight reigns, we act like stodgy gatekeepers who likely keep the children who most need our help and our literature from achieving their full ability to grow as learners.  It is our fear of loss – the literal loss of materials and figurative loss of control – that ultimately causes our students to lose the most.


Today, my kids still ask “Where’s my book?”.  They know that, lost or found, it won’t preclude their lives as readers.  I only hope to help my future students feel the same way.


Arika Dickens is an NBCT teacher-librarian. She’s recently relocated from the suburbs of Seattle to London, where she’s excited to join an international school as their lower school librarian in the fall.  Passionate about connecting readers to books, she co-founded the OTTER Book Award for transitional readers in Washington State.  Outside of the school library, she’s often found exploring her new city and reading stories with her family. She blogs at www.librarianarika.wordpress.com, shares literature & life on Instagram @ms.arika_, and tweets on a variety of subjects @librarianarika.