Trigger warning - this article contains references to suicide

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What is the impact of extremely overdue books?

This time last year, our first thoughts would probably have been:

  • Cost of replacement
  • Staff time, and
  • Other users unable to loan the item

Recently we have been trying a new approach, thinking instead about why the user may be late with their return, and whether our usual method of chasing the books was appropriate. Before the change our chasing process looked like this:

Auto generated emails – sent a month apart for 3 months after the item was due.

Emailing the user personally to ask for the return – we contacted the library user via email to tell them their book was overdue, which book it was, the cost of replacement, and their options. We asked for a reply to the email and chased every week.

Ringing the user – after the first few weeks without a reply to the personal email we would ring the user, reminding them that their books were overdue for return and that we would have to send an invoice to finance to claim from them if we did not receive the books.

Then one of our users died by suicide.

It gave us pause, and showed that we needed to reflect on a few questions:

  • How important were our books in the scheme of things?
  • Was our approach one that benefitted our users?
  • How effective was it?
  • Did we want our users to be scared and anxious about making returns?

We decided that we could do better. Our experience, along with reading about the impact that staff interaction could have on library users and the importance of policies which "allow for life to happen" (pg 12) led us to take a different route.

We have a new process now, we still send the auto generated emails, we still send a personal email, but there’s a different focus.

We made a small change to our email opening, adding a question. After a few months of automated reminders, users now receive an email which opens like this:

“Dear [X]

Today we have received a notification that you currently have a book on your account which was due back on [date]. We wanted to check if everything was okay?”

After this, we still let them know the system is asking us to invoice them, we still let them know that they can replace the resources or pay the cost of replacement. We still ask them to get in touch. But we also ask them to let us know if anything is preventing them from returning the resources, and tell them that we can work our a solution together if so.

We don’t need our users to tell us exactly what is going on, but if someone comes back and says they’re having a difficult time or are unwell we can make a note to send less emails, to give them breathing space, to recommend support resources if necessary.

This may seem obvious, but we found that procedure was getting in the way of compassion.

Since making our change we have not noticed an increase in overdues and currently have no outstanding loans on our chasers spreadsheet. What we have noticed is users being less anxious about late returns, and how much they appreciate us checking in. More of our overdue users have felt able to tell us that circumstances were preventing returns, and we have made appropriate allowances.

Although it’s important to maintain our stock, it’s more important to ensure that we don’t add any undue pressure to our users in already difficult and stressful times. Making a few small changes to our chaser email and refocusing our approach has helped us focus on wellbeing alongside returns.

Stacey Astill

Senior Library Assistant

Keyll Daree Library, Isle of Man