How not to email the library

I have been perplexed in recent weeks.  This is not unusual, for there are many sources of perplexity in my life, some of them self-inflicted.  The thing that I am currently finding perplexing is email, specifically the email we receive from students in response to our automatically-generated reminders that their books are due back soon or, if they ignore these, are overdue.

A favourite trick has always been to frustrate our efforts to help them.  “Can I renew my books that are due back tomorrow?” is a perfectly acceptable message, but it is less helpful if that is the entire text of the message and it is sent from  We may possess astonishing powers where information is concerned, but even librarians have their limits and are not generally blessed with special powers that allow us to divine people’s names from their email addresses.  We can trace internal university addresses quite easily, but hotmail, yahoo and gmail accounts are not so easy to marry up with the relevant overdue books.

Then, of course, there are the swearers, the SHOUTers, the people who communicate in something close to txtspk and the people who are very creative with language.  Renue, reknew, renoo and rinew are all interesting variations on ‘renew’ that I have come across, as are re-borrow and re-loan, along with the puzzling re-stamp – do they want us to somehow send the ink of the date stamp to their books electronically?  These people are much easier, for communication is achieved happily.  The spelling or vocabulary may be unusual, but the intent is clear, so all is well.

The current cause of frustration as I sift through the library inbox is not a new one, but does seem to be increasing in frequency.  The exchange generally runs something like this, with the student responding to a reminder email, which they have helpfully included below, above or around the text of their response:

Student: Why are you saying that these books are due back?  I returned them on Monday 24th November in the morning and that lady with the long hair served me.  Maybe she didn’t take them off my account or something, but I’m not paying the fine and I think this is very unfair!!!

My inner monologue: Oh, dear.  I wonder what happened?

My inner monologue (after checking their account): There aren’t any books on loan to them, so maybe they have already contacted someone else.  Let’s see if their fines have been waived…

My inner monologue (continued a few moments later, looking at their email): Argh, not again!

Me: Dear student, the email you are responding to was sent on the morning of 24th November, shortly before you returned your books.  Please allow me to reassure you that these items were indeed cleared from your account two weeks ago and there are no books currently on loan to you.

The bad librarian is not allowed anywhere near the keyboard, but if he were, his response to the twentieth offender or so would probably be along these lines:

Dear student, why are you wasting my time with this message?  Please note that the date of the message is included at the top of the text, before your name and certainly before the list of books.  Also, you may like to know that the date and time of an email can be seen quite clearly in its header and in your inbox.  I know you haven’t checked your email for several weeks, but really, do you not understand?  Just because you opened your email this morning does not mean that all your emails were sent this morning.  May I suggest learning about the concept of the passage of time?  Please be aware that I have added a £5 ‘annoying the librarians’ charge to your account.

Now that letters so rarely cross in the post (since there is so rarely any post worth speaking of), the idea has faded from our collective consciousness to some degree, so maybe emails crossing in the ether is not a thought that naturally occurs to people.  Emails are seen as ‘instant’ communication – letters take time to get from A to B, even if A and B are in the same town, but emails do not (well, they do, but they generally don’t take a very long time to make the journey).  It does seem strange, though, that a number of our students do not seem to be able to cope with the concept that an email may have been sent at a time other than the time it is read, and sits patiently waiting in an inbox until rescued from obscurity by the click of a mouse or the press of a key.  It is particularly strange when you consider that I have seen all the forms our internal email system can take, and all of them display the date and time of messages very clearly, as does the text of the template for our automatic messages.

In a higher education environment where librarians, lecturers and administrators are growing ever more concerned about how best to deliver teaching, provide information and generally engage the ‘digital native’ student, it strikes me that the use of email by many of these students suggests that they are not quite so native as we believe.  My institution does have a higher than usual percentage of mature (and therefore theoretically ‘digital immigrant’) students, generally taking vocational courses in order to advance existing careers or switch careers.  This could explain it, at least in many instances.  Or perhaps the idea of the digital native is overblown and/or misdefined, perhaps higher education does not need to tie itself up in knots getting twittered and facebooked up.  Or, ultimately, perhaps some people just aren’t as accomplished as we might hope with communications technology.  Whatever the reason, I do wish that everyone would do as the majority clearly do, and think for a moment before they send their email to the library.

    • Phil
    • December 4th, 2008

    Perhaps it is down to the thought that as you say emails are nearly instantaneous and so everything in the inbox is “NEW”.
    This is thinking is along the lines of sms text messages, which are almost instantaneous and if you leave your mobile phone on then you get them almost as soon as they’re sent. Or most of the time you do. New Years eve is always a bit of a lottery how long it will take for a text to go through as everyone is trying to send at the same time, or at major events when the system gets a bit overloaded with too many people trying at the same time. These texts could take several hours to get through.
    Instantaneous communication, nearly most of the time, but not always all of the time with what we’ve got now.


  1. A £5 annoying the librarians fee 🙂

    Jolly good idea. You’d be millionaires in next to no time.

  2. wonders when they will get around to imposing an ‘annoying the pages’ fine….

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