23 September 2014

On the Ethics of Lost Book Fines in a Self-Checkout, Volunteer Check-in Library

"I turned that book in." 

I'm sure we've all heard it a million times. 

Just about all of my students have said this regarding books listed as overdue on their accounts. But the thing that bugs is me is that I'm certain some (or perhaps, many) of them did return those missing books. Any degree of certainty about account accuracy was lost when library assistants were cut three years ago. Even then, things might not have been 100% accurate. I've caught two students returning checked-out books to shelves this year. How many have I missed? As a result, I've been conflicted about charging students for lost books for the past several years. 

I have several volunteers who help in the library; I honestly don't know how the library could run without them. They check-in and shelf books, help with processing, change bulletin boards, and perform a million other tasks every week. I also have three fifth grade student volunteers who are part of our Star Power group. These students come in first thing in the morning (and sometimes during their recess) to help check-in books, shelf books, or put out iPads. I can't imagine even a day without all of this extra help. 

Three years ago, there was a library assistant in our library. She checked-in all of our books, shelved all of our books, did just about all of our processing, managed our leveled readers room, ran the laminator, and wore a dozen other hats too. With one person responsible for managing most of our circulating materials, especially a person with years of experience, I had a high degree of confidence in our records. It's impossible to have that same degree of confidence now. 

Starting in second grade, students check-out their own books. This allows me to assist other students in browsing, but it also opens the door for mistakes. It's a balance I accept, because I think it's more important for me to help students than to hover over our check-out stations. For the most part, this system works well, but there are sometimes mistakes. Occasionally, a student mistypes her id#, or scans the publisher's barcode instead of ours, or forgets to hit the "reset" button when she's done. Sometimes I catch these mistakes before the student leaves the check-out station; I'm sure I sometimes don't.

Lately, when a student looks at me worriedly and says, "But I turned that book in," I tell her not to worry about it. Students know that there are fines associated with books and other consequences if books aren't returned or paid for. The thought of a student paying for a book she returned bothers me, so I tell them we'll take a look on the shelves or wait a week or two and see if someone else turns it in. 

So now, the question is what should I do at the end of year? I'm thinking about some sort of incentive for classrooms with all materials returned. This will allow me to encourage students to return books without an axe hanging over their heads. I'm interesting in hearing from other librarians in similar situations. What do you do about missing books at the end of the year? 

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