How to Be Brave: Book Checkout Limits and Sacred Cows

In School Library Journal’s October 2012 issue, the cover article centered on the hot topic of Dewey vs. METIS classification systems, but the best advice I found was in the “Next Big Thing” follow-up in March 2013 where Christopher Harris quoted a colleague saying,

“perhaps the best way to move forward with this discussion is to put the sacred cows back to pasture.”

Book Checkout Limits and Sacred Cows | Mrs. J in the Library @ A Wrinkle in Tech

Not holy, just yummy (if you’re an omnivore).
Image from Pixabay

My own experiment with simplifying Dewey to whole numbers this year is letting those cows out to wander around, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.

Another “sacred cow” of school libraries, however, is the book checkout limit, especially for young students.

One very brave colleague of mine started letting students check out 10 (yes, TEN) books at a time last school year.  Even kindergarteners.   Many librarians think of this and start having a mini panic attack.  For readers who are not librarians, here’s what probably goes through our minds:

  • OH MY WORD!  Ten books, WHAT?!?!?!  WHY would she do that?
  • How does that even work?  How does she get books back on the shelves and organized?
  • My assistant (wait, I probably even don’t have an assistant) doesn’t have enough hours!  I don’t either!  I’ll spend my life shelving!  UGH!!  I can’t do that; I have a family who I love and want to spend time with!
  • I teach students who can’t keep track of 1 or 2 books!  How can I trust them with 10 items from the library!?!?
  • How can I stay on top of MORE lost items, overdue items, parent calls about lost/overdue items, MORE tracking of MORE items!?  I can’t even keep up now!

Now, librarian readers, take a deep breath!

Just stop and think a minute…after my colleague mentioned this at a department meeting, first I panicked, then I started thinking and reflecting for a few weeks.  And I started asking, “WHY only 2 books at a time?  How did we come up with that number?  What’s so magic about the number two?”  I think the simple answer is: “Because that’s what we’ve always done, and it works.”

Now, yes, there’s shelving and staffing time.  Re-shelving HUNDREDS of books, audiobooks, and AV materials per day is time-consuming, and that shouldn’t be underestimated.  While shelving may not seem important from the outside of a library, keeping library items organized so students can find and use them IS important to anyone who needs information….and that’s everyone at some point in their life.

Does your shelving cart look like this? That's okay, so does mine. | Book Checkout Limits and Sacred Cows | Mrs. J in the Library @ A Wrinkle in Tech

Does your shelving cart look like this? That’s okay, so does mine.
Image from Pixabay

Unlike what of society thinks, there is MUCH more to a librarian’s job than shelving books/audiobooks/etc.  And as 21st century librarians, I know there’s always technology tools to recommend, book talks to give, education/tech/library news to keep up on, PLN feeds to read…..and it goes on.  But if things aren’t shelved right away, students can always pick off the shelving cart and the world won’t end.

At the core of our beliefs as children’s librarians, is the idea that children should have access to high quality materials.  So why do we purchase the absolute best materials for our students to read, then limit students to just 2 at a time?  2 items at a time, once a week is still only about 60-75 books a year.

And that’s just not enough reading for me.  With a 2-item limit, half my picture book collection isn’t being checked out, and MORE than half of the nonfiction never gets touched.  And I don’t think that’s an efficient use of the collection I work hard to build…or a good use of taxpayers’ money.

So I think as librarians, we should consider raising that checkout limit.

Perhaps you might try book checkout that corresponds to grade level — 3 for 3rd graders, 4 for 4th graders, etc. as a trial.  For this year, I’m taking the plunge and trying 5 items at a time for grades 2-5.  Kindergarten is getting bumped up from 1 to 2 books this week, and 1st grade will go from 2 to 5 items later this year.  Students can mix and match…audiobooks, chapter books, first chapter books, everybody books, graphic novels…plus any unlimited-access ebooks students choose to read.

And someday, if I can convince the administrators in my district to increase my assistant’s hours, I’d like to raise that number to ten.  For our library, this is the best compromise I can offer and still maintain most of the library services to teachers and students.

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Mrs. J in the Library

Collette J., or Mrs. J in the Library, is a full-time elementary teacher-librarian, blogger, and mama from Pennsylvania. She loves technology, books in any format, makerspaces, and all things Harry Potter. The information and opinions represented here are her own and are not the views and opinions of any business or organization.

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2 Responses

  1. Franny Parrish says:

    Sacred cows are certainly worth putting on the barbecue. I am at a school that has over 714 students and I restrict K to one book, 1st to one book, 2-5 get 2 books and if they are doing a project I add a 3rd book. Until we started doing Accelerated Reader I noticed every week, and even every two weeks, that students were not even finishing the books they had. Ten books? That would have to be some really devoted readers in a week or two weeks time. They check books out often just because it looks good to them or their friends, but the reality is they can not even read it. My policy and that of many of my fellow workers, is to keep an open door policy. If they finish their 1-2 books in less than a week, they are welcome to return them and get more books. Very few do this, only the real readers.

    • Mrs. J in the Library says:

      I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this topic, though it is worth noting that not every child chooses to check out 5 books at my library. Some do the first week, then realize they only read 3 by the next library class, so they choose to get 3 from then on. Others might stick with 2 by choice or with parent input. Either way, it gives more choice and autonomy to the child to determine their own learning and interests…something I always strive to encourage.

      For chapter books, it’s true that they generally take longer to finish, and perhaps students aren’t finishing them. As a librarian, though, it’s not my job (or my business) to make sure the books get read entirely. My job is to connect students with books and resources to help them become lifelong learners. And for some students, that means they need to try a bunch of books that they don’t like before finding one they do.

      Limiting young children to only 1 or 2 picture books (which can be read aloud in under 15 minutes) COULD actually limit their reading opportunities, though. That’s where 10 books really becomes powerful. Allowing open library (if you’re lucky enough to have a schedule that allows it) is great, however, it’s still dependent on a teachers’ willingness to let them visit the library on a non-class day. The students could potentially be missing out on opportunities to read more books simply because their teacher’s schedule is too full. That doesn’t seem right to me, so thus I allow up to 5 books at a time and my colleague allows up to 10. As our schedules get tighter and tighter with less time for administrative tasks, this is one way we are adapting and coping. We allow more checkouts, but no “in-between” visits unless a students is absent or forgot their books on their scheduled library day. So far it’s worked well.

      Of course I don’t expect all students to be reading all their books themselves, especially in kindergarten. My hope is that they will ask a parent to read to them if they can’t read it themselves, regardless of their grade level.