Library Book Renewal; or: When you Should Purchase Books

Three times a year, my Facebook and Twitter feeds fill up with signs of despair from graduate students at the University of Alberta. Hand-wringing, Facebook ranting, and collective sighing. Not over what you might expect–paper deadlines, proposal submission due dates, or reading list anxieties–no, this deadline is much more difficult to manage. It takes up reams of our time, and tends to plague upper-year MA and PhD students more than first-years.

What am I talking about?

Library Book Renewal.

Here at the University of Alberta, we have a system that is probably similar to libraries at many other universities: graduate students have the luxury of longer-than-average borrowing privileges. This means that we can usually keep books for a semester at a time, if there aren’t any special restrictions. And for up to three times, we can renew said books easily, using the online system.

It can lead to a blissful ignorance of the fact that said books are not, in fact, the sole property of the student who is temporarily holding possession of them. Usually graduate students live blissfully ignorant for months–even a year!–of the fact that we even have a renewal limit.

But one of two things inevitably happens: 1) after the three-time renewal, our book renewal limits are reached; or, 2) someone has–god forbid–placed a hold on your book (it has been recalled), and it must be returned within the week.

If the former–and we’ve been hoarding, which I see oft practiced by graduate students–we have to lug bags of books into the library to renew every last one by hand. If the latter, you have about a week to return the book, regardless of how long you’ve had it (and you might have just finally cracked it open that day).

Either way, the punishment for non-compliance is stringent. No matter if you just moved apartments, and you happened to have packed up a stack of library books in who-knows-what-box. No matter if you are out of town for a conference, or research trip, and can’t return home to physically return the books. No matter if your house flooded last week, and the flood-restoration company happened to accidentally pack up one of your library books into boxes that are now kept, miles away, in a storage facility. No matter if on hold-return-deadline-day you happened to have forgotten at home the library book that had a hold placed on it, and decided to pay the $5 fine instead of going back home to retrieve it (a 1-hour round trip), and then stupidly forgot that said fine would freeze your account, which would make it impossible to renew all your books on the day-later renewal deadline. (Okay, at least two of these things may have happened to me because of a combination of bad luck and my own stupidity.) No matter**: If you do not return or renew said books, you will have to pay the $2 per day fine for each book. If the book happens to have been recalled, the fines are even worse: $5 per day per recalled book. If you happen to have checked out say, 10 books, this results in minimum fines of $20 per day. If you happen to be a graduate-student-hoarder of library books (say, of 50 books), one day’s missed returns could mean at least $100 in fines. I wish I could say that I know of one really impeccably-on-top-of-her/his-shit graduate student who has never paid a single fine because they just keep on top of things, but the fact is, I think every graduate student I know has paid at least one fine. It’s really hard to avoid.

So, you may be wondering: what can I do? Can I minimize, if not eliminate, said fines? Can I prevent myself from paying hundreds of dollars in accumulated library fines over the course of my graduate degree(s)?

As it happens, I think you can, and I have a few suggestions!

1) Check out ebooks whenever possible. If you can handle reading on-screen, check out ebooks, which simply expire or timeout rather than cause you to pay fines. If you can’t read on-screen, save a pdf copy of whatever portion of the book you need to read immediately (copyright regulations usually allow you to download at least 10 pages of the book), and send it to your e-reader or print. If you can read onscreen, either take notes immediately or save those pages you reference the most in a pdf copy. For some, the ebook readers available on library websites are not ideal, and it can be difficult to read books within these systems. Other systems allow for downloads to external readers (Kindle or Kobo), from which you can highlight or take clippings and notes on said text. Either way, figure out what system your library has, and make it work for you as best you can. You’ll pay less fines in the long run if you take out ebooks rather than physical copies.

2) Be on-the-ball. Find out about your library system (browse the library website or ask a friendly librarian!) Figure out your library system and inform yourself of your borrowing privileges, renewal limits, and the cost of fines (and perhaps even how fine appeals work). Set up reminders for yourself on your phone to return books, and pay attention to the reminders your library probably already sends to your email account. If you’re going to a conference or research trip or are out of the country for any reason, be sure to return any library books and/or make sure you’re not going to run into any deadlines (including recalled books).

3) Don’t hoard or accumulate books: When you’re reading a book, take external notes and/or make photocopies of the portions of the book (subject to copyright restrictions) that you found most pertinent, and then return it. Pre-empt the deadline and return it as soon as you’ve finished with it. Try not to accumulate more than, say 30 books out at one time (this may prove difficult for final-paper-writing-first-years, in which case, be sure to follow the first part of my instructions here and return the books as soon as you are done with them).

4) Shift the way you think about library books, and don’t forgot they’re not your own: try to remember that you are borrowing the book and that it really isn’t yours. Don’t take it home unless you really need to. Don’t leave it on your bookshelf at home for weeks at a time just so you can admire it on your shelf. Don’t line the shelves of your office with library books just because you can. I mean, you can, but you may pay the cost in fines if you treat your books this way.

and finally, and most importantly:

5) Buy the books you are most frequently checking out. I think this is a really important, especially if you are a PhD student. I used to check out books for months at a time because they were so important to my dissertation. I resisted buying them because I didn’t think I could afford it. In some cases I was right, and I couldn’t afford that particular book. There are books that are super expensive, only available in hardback, and genuinely out of my price range. These books I still get out from the library, but the key here is to keep your checkouts of these books at a minimum, and refer to my suggestions number 3 and 4 (read the book, take external notes, and/or photocopy what you can and don’t treat them like they’re yours), instead of keeping these books out for months at a time. But with the books that are affordable and you use them frequently and/or they are really important to the way you think/read, do buy them. I think it’s worth it if you will use them again and again plus it will save you the cost of possible fines. Set aside a portion of your graduate student stipend to purchase books (particularly in the years when you’re writing your dissertation), and buy those books that are proving crucial.

I’m interested to hear your suggestions on how to minimize fines or navigate your library renewal systems. Do you have additional suggestions that I’ve missed here? I’d love to hear them! Tweet me at @janasmithelford or add to the hashtag #tacitphd

**We are occasionally exempted by the good will of our dear human librarians, who occasionally by-pass the system to renew our books when we can’t do so, or forgive our fines when we make an official appeal. May we forever be in their good and compassionate graces. 

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