In my role as a school librarian, I recently received an email from a student that said in part: “My father will email the hatchet on Saturday.”

This was all written in the subject line.

My eyes quickly flicked down to the overdue notice that had prompted this reply, to reassure myself that the book in question was “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen. It was. I smiled.

My world has become brighter ever since students in grades seven through 12 have been receiving overdue notices through email. They are writing back to me.

Library staff used to print out the notices for homeroom teachers to distribute. No one liked this system. Students only communicated with us about the notices when they swore they’d already brought the books back. Usually they were angry.

But back then, few students checked their email regularly. The pandemic changed all that. All our students are virtual learners at least three days a week, and need to use their email accounts.

It was quite a project to enter the email addresses of nearly 1,000 students onto their library records, but well worth it. They can’t browse in the library right now, but they can reserve books online and then pick them up. They are notified that their books are ready through email.

This, in fact, was the reason we entered the email addresses to begin with. Then we realized the overdue notices and bills would now go out electronically as well. It was a win-win.

I didn’t expect students to respond to the notices. Adults, who also check out our books, usually only write back to tell me they’ve already returned them. Once in a while, they’ll say something like, “I’ve only got one more chapter to read.”

But as soon as the first student notices went out, I started getting email from students too, a handful each day. Sometimes it was a simple, “Thanks for the reminder.”

Some reflected the realities of the pandemic. “I’ll send it in with my brother, because I’m in cohort c;” in other words, a full-time virtual learner.

Another student asked if he could renew because he was self-quarantining. I felt my heart sink with that one.

I exchanged several emails with a student about a missing textbook, then his mother wrote to me. She’s a teacher who had just returned to school after a COVID-related shutdown.

We have to quarantine books for 72 hours before checking them in, so sometimes students get notices for books they have already returned. They let me know, and I explain the situation.

The notices look like they are coming from my email address. In reality, they are automated. But the students don’t know this. They think I am personally waiting for that book to come back, when I usually have no clue what they’re talking about. I have to check their record to see what the issue is.

Imagine you are a seventh-grader, just starting middle school, who has never been to the new school library. You get an overdue notice for a book you took out in March. So you write an email telling your new librarian, “You are misinformed. I’ve never been to the library and I’ve never taken out this book.”

I looked at the notice; the title seemed odd. So I checked the student’s record, saw he had taken out the book while still in elementary school. The title was long, so it had been truncated on the notice.

I wrote back to the student, explaining that he’d taken out the book while still in sixth grade, and gave him the full title of the book. He returned it the next day.

When I told a teacher that a student had written to me about a novel for English class, she said, “They are really taking the notices seriously.” Then we laughed, because the student’s concern was that the teacher “hadn’t started us on that book yet.”

A freshman told me in detail, in an email adorned with emojis, that he had put the book in question on his eighth-grade English teacher’s desk at the end of each class. I thought for a moment. The library doesn’t check out class sets of textbooks to eighth graders. I looked more closely at the overdue notice. It was for the book he’d read last year, but a library copy that the student had checked out individually, on his own.

I went to the shelves and found it. In the confusion of so many books being returned at once, both in the spring and when school resumed, this book hadn’t been checked in.

There are few students in the library these days. My colleagues and I miss them. I am happy to have this online contact with them. I can allay their concerns: Keep the text until you’re done with it. If you say you returned the book, or left it in your locker in March, we’ll take your word for it.

There’s a pandemic going on. Let’s keep things in perspective.

The young lady who needed to return “Hatchet” ended her all-in-the-subject line email with, “Have a blessed day!” I think I smiled for at least an hour after reading that. I hope my students keep those emails coming.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]


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