These Belleville school libraries no longer have fines for late books. Here’s why
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
When schools closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19, Laura Byrne, the library director at Belleville East High School, said it was “all hands on deck.”
School librarians are media literacy experts and were called upon early and often to help teachers prepare to teach remotely for the first time. In the meantime, they had to innovate a new way of doing their own jobs and juggle their priorities.
“I remember when we first shut down, a couple of my library friends called and asked ‘Are you going to try to get books out or are you going to try to get books back? Because we don’t know when these kids are coming back,’” said Tiffany Droege, the library director at Belleville West High School.
“That was a really tough moment for me,” she said. “We decided let’s get them out, and if they don’t come back, they don’t come back. It really paid off.”
Some COVID adaptations have waned as most of the district’s students are back to in-person learning five days a week, but a few major changes are permanent.
Computer labs used to be a main feature in school libraries so entire classes could do research at once.
But to conduct remote learning during the pandemic, many school districts, including Belleville 201, used federal COVID relief money to make sure there’s a computer device — usually a Chromebook — available for every student.
Both Belleville high schools still have some computers in the library, but the full labs are gone. Instead, the schools are in the process of setting up video and audio labs for students to use to create broadcasts, podcasts and other visual or audio projects.
Late fines have been eliminated, too. At first, that was for practical reasons — books had to be quarantined upon their return, and the library staff wanted to minimize the exchange of money early on in the pandemic.
But at 10 cents for each day a book was late, Droege said the fines were more about shame than encouraging students to return their books.
“We didn’t love fines anyway. You know the argument for it is to get your stuff back, but all it really does is disenfranchise students and make it a punishment,” Byrnes said. “ … Then they don’t come back. That’s the last thing I want — for a kid to owe me 30 cents and never come back to the library for three years. That’s a tragedy.”
Between adapting to COVID, running book and author events, teaching media literacy and promoting reading, Byrne and Droege managed to fill out applications for the Exemplary School Library Award through AISLE, the Association of Illinois School Library Educators.
The award, which is granted to two school libraries in Illinois each year, was presented to both high schools in Belleville Township High School District 201.
Originally, the two library directors asked to file a joint application for the award.
Byrne and Droege had been collaborating on library programming in the district for years. Byrne hired Droege and they worked alongside each other at West before Byrne moved to the East campus.
When students were remote, the programming overlapped even more.
After a challenging year and a half for educators, Byrne and Droege said the AISLE award was extremely validating.
“We needed an ‘atta boy,’” Droege said. “I think all teachers do right now.”
Other changes, unrelated to COVID, are underway too.
Genre fiction, including fantasy, mysteries, science fiction and horror are increasingly popular among students. All genres used to be lumped together under “fiction,” but the libraries have broken up the fiction sections by genre.
Both schools broke book check-out records at the beginning of the year. In the first week at Belleville West, Byrne said 800 books were checked out, which is more than they’d ever had in the entire month of August.
Separating out popular genres made it easier for students to find the books they were interested in, which Byrne and Droege said could have contributed to the increase in checkouts.
“I think people assume that kids don’t read books anymore. They don’t want the e-book or the audio book — very rarely,” Byrne said. “They want the paper book.”
Paper books are generally preferred for pleasure reading, but not for research.
“I just recently got rid of my entire reference section: Hundreds and hundreds of books that hadn’t been used in years and sets of encyclopedias where now we have our digital reference libraries and our databases,” Droege said.
Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.