April 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Swapping Library Fines for Lentils Inspires IA Teens

A long-time high school librarian has developed a new way to endear her students to her library at holiday time—and by extension, all year long.

Becky Johnson, teacher librarian at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, IA (and a former reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette), saw library fines as conflicting with her overarching goal of encouraging a love of reading in her students.

A common topic that surfaces and resurfaces among teacher librarians is whether or not students should be charged fines for late or lost books. Listservs are full of debates on whether such fines are counterproductive. At some high schools, students can’t check out books if they have an outstanding fine or a missing book on their record.

Johnson, on the other hand, allows her students to check out books regardless.”I’m not worried about lost revenue, which is minimal anyway, because promoting literacy and reading is much more important to me than holding kids responsible for bringing back books late,” she says. “I just want them reading and having positive feelings about our library, our school— and libraries in general.”

Last year, Johnson pondered how to go one step further, possibly leveraging the fee system to help the school’s neighbors. “We have a fair number of low-income families in our community,” she explains. Then, after helping her husband with the annual U.S. Postal Service food drive, it hit her.


Around the holidays, Johnson quickly pulled together the Food for Fines promotion. Students with fines were encouraged to drop off a can of food (or any other non-perishable food) as currency to wipe out the late fee. Johnson had time for relatively little promotion, yet still collected enough food to fill four large boxes, which they dropped off at the Olivet Neighborhood Mission, a local food bank.

Johnson doesn’t think she is the first one to execute such a plan, and she is sure she won’t be the last. “I decided to try it because it provided students a way to take responsibility for their fines and donate to a good cause at the same time,” Johnson recalls. Her best memory of last year’s drive was when a young man walked in carrying a half dozen cans of food. “When I looked him up on the computer, I saw that he had no fines. I told him so and he said, ‘I know. I just wanted to pay it forward for someone who did.’”

Johnson and her team just kicked off this year’s Food for Fines program yesterday, with six boxes of spaghetti. This time, they chose a different recipient, the Linn County Food Bank.

“After my interaction with that student last year, I want to keep doing this project at least once a year until I retire,” says Johnson.


RELATED:  Feeding Minds and Bodies: Libraries, Nonprofits, and Authors offer Food Education

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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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  1. I love this idea, so I brought it to my media specialist who loved it too. His main concern was that as a public school media center, our budget relies heavily on tax dollars, and therefore what we are allowed to do regarding our materials and fines is strictly limited. Is there a (legal) way to work around this?