A School Librarian's Philosophy of Lost Books

One librarian’s journey from anxiety to acceptance and enlightenment.

Reflection is one of the most positive things we can do as professionals. Thinking about where we began and the road we’ve traveled are beneficial in moving forward toward our professional goals, whatever they are. There has been an increasing amount of discussion about self-care for librarians of late, and I think we can make reflection work double duty by reflecting on ourselves as human beings, too. I have found that my journey of self-care has taught me some valuable lessons for the workplace, and though it might sound trite, not sweating the small stuff (and realizing what is small) has helped me to greatly reduce stress and anxiety that naturally comes with the job.

To illustrate, I have an anxiety disorder, and that carries over into my professional life more than I care to admit. Knowing this about myself after much reflection (read: hours of therapy), I am proactive in actively differentiating between small and big stuff and removing or minimizing those stress inducers in the library as much as I can. I can thankfully say that I have finally removed from my life the stress, anxiety, and worry over lost library books.

Any school library that actively circulates books will have patrons that lose (or perhaps take) those books. You need to accept and make peace with this fact.

You have no idea how long it took for me to be able to say that aloud. Everybody has their own hangups, but the number of lost books at the end of the year really used to chap my hide. Of course, I did (and do) have stress about other tasks, but one issue at a time. Based on the number of social media posts I read from other librarians across the country, students losing books is stressful for many of my colleagues, so I would like to share with you all how I reframed the issue and rewired my stressed-out brain.

From anxiety to enlightenment

Part of my self-care is talk therapy, and on this journey, I have found that rewriting the narrative of negativity to be a huge help in my personal life.

I don’t sit in an hour of grueling traffic on the way home from work; I have an uninterrupted hour to listen to a podcast. I could complain endlessly about food shopping and cooking, but taking the time to buy quality produce and prepare it the way I like it is good for my health. I’m still working on reframing paying the bills and cleaning the house. I’ll keep you posted.

I recently found a quote by Henry Miller from his 1969 Books of My Life that encapsulates my philosophy of lost books beautifully: “A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation. Lend and borrow to the maximum...A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you.” I am glad I read it recently after having gone through my “metamorphosis” on book loss rather than before. It is a sign that I am on the right track.

Fumbling towards sanity

I worked for seven years in an elementary school library, which had a circulation that was mediocre at best when I first arrived. I began to pay closer attention to circulation statistics while increasing programming, expanding periods for circulation, and creating engaging displays. The reading culture began to kick in, and circulation steadily increased. Each year, the number of books lost increased as well.

For most of those seven years, I guess the best word to describe my tactics in recovering lost books was “militant.” I employed ever-stricter policies to safeguard the books in the hopes that my collection would remain as-is and intact. By March of each year, I was stressed about the number of books I knew would walk by June, and it haunted me day and night. What was I doing wrong?

Recognizing the correlation between circulation rate and loss rate, while so simple in retrospect, was a large part of my evolution to acceptance and rewriting the narrative. My sanity and attitude required a change.

Books on a journey

Having accepted wholeheartedly the fact that a percentage of books loaned will not be returned, I still had those pesky lost books to consider. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me: All those books that were missing, but for my students’ voracious need to find out what happens next or why the sky is blue, or whatever reason someone chose the title that they did, would otherwise still be sitting on the shelves, collecting dust like artifacts from a bygone era.

But they’re not. While they are no longer part of my collection, they are part of another collection, I believe, somewhere else. Where that is, I don’t know, but it gives me comfort knowing that although they’re gone, they were borrowed with pure intentions to know more. Isn’t that what it’s all about? This might seem like pie in the sky, but that’s okay. Who doesn’t like pie?

Each book in a collection has its own story to tell, and in my romanticized version of books, they have their own “lives” to live. I imagine books have a life cycle. Not all of their lives will end in my library. I don’t ponder where they eventually end up. I just trust, in some cosmic way, that a book will find its way to the person that needs to hear its story.

The real world

I know that collection development is an arduous and expensive endeavor, and budget scarcity is a reality for too many of us. This is a can of worms on its own, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it. I understand this is the primary motivation for many librarians I encounter, at conferences and on social media, who lament the number of lost books. More sympathetic I could not be. I just don’t know if that it is the best use of one’s time and energy.

The idea that a school library is not funded with a yearly budget to purchase new books is unconscionable to me. There are organizations at the state and national levels that need to hear the voices of passionate librarians who want change. In my opinion, our time is better spent trying to make systemic changes rather than bemoaning a system that forces librarians to become protectors of books rather than dealers in knowledge.

To be good at our jobs, we have to be good at ourselves. Self-care is something I strongly believe in for all humans. Things as mundane as lost books can really sap our strength, but don’t have to.

Miller’s quote mentions that idle books are akin to wasted evidence. To me, lost books are out there being someone else’s evidence, and my therapist and I are more than fine with that.

Ciro Scardina is a librarian at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, NY. He is a 2014 Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

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Margie Jones

Your post is well-written and reflects a compassionate POV. One thing missing from your self-care post is the word "responsibility". If you are putting forth the policy "Hey, lose a book, no worries, it's all good :)" then I guarantee you are going to lose more books than if you put forth the policy "Hey, taking care of books is your responsibility. If you lose a book you will need to replace it, pay for it, or work it off", you will lose less books. I don't know anyone that would loan someone $50 and then stand by and smile when the person says they can't pay you back, but are flashing a new pair of kicks that likely cost $120. Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule and if you are good at your job and know your students, you deal with those in a different, more compassionate way. Also, if a student loses a library book, it's a book that isn't available for another and another and another student to enjoy. Usually it isn't about saving a book from a life of sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Finally, we librarians are not all about our budgets and money. We are not in it to build up the best collection in the world. We are in it to make books available to children. We are in it to raise children who love books and reading and who will grow and preserve our way of life. That, at least, is something we all can agree on.

Posted : Aug 29, 2019 09:14

Mary Sam Abernathy null

Your points are well taken. I don't feel I have an over abundance of anxiety about lost books. I do have honest conversations with my students about taking care of "our library." We discuss why we love it and how we can make it better. We talk about being good citizens and returning what we borrow. We also talk about being honest when accidents happen. None of these conversations solve every problem but it does help students understand why they need to take care of their library books to the best of their ability. My hope is that lost books are being read and loved somewhere else!

Posted : Aug 20, 2019 12:36

Alice S.

Thank you for your balanced story on this topic. Thank you, as well, for sharing your journey of self-care as a school librarian. The job can be very isolating and overwhelming, as you well know. May you continue this honest, reflective work.

Posted : Aug 12, 2019 03:48

Allison Williams

At my elementary school most books that are checked out and not returned are on teacher accounts. We consider that the price of doing business. Teachers who use the library regularly and enthusiastically should be encouraged. Sometimes a book is lost from a classroom because a student took it home. Sometimes it got mis-shelved with a teacher's classroom collection. When you consider how many books we remove from our collection yearly because they no longer meet our criteria for retaining them, it is a very small percentage that are in fact lost. We do send charges for lost books on student accounts in midsummer which gives parents time to look through backpacks. We remove charges if the book is returned before we order a replacement. There are some well-to-do families at our independent school who send us a note to "just charge them" which is definitely not the message we are trying to send. And we mustn't forget that occasionally a book that was considered lost turns up in some unexpected part of the collection!

Posted : Aug 12, 2019 03:05

Diane Knight

Thanks for the insight on lost books. I am not sure I am there yet but am willing to change my way of thinking.

Posted : Aug 12, 2019 02:21

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