Crafting a Great Courtesy Notice: Email Formatting Tips

A good email is a skill everyone appreciates.

I’ve got a confession to make. For the first eight years of my career, I, a user experience (UX) librarian who could talk for any amount of time about best practices for creating and formatting web content, did not think once about the UX of emails. Not their formatting, not their content, and certainly not how to make them readable and useful for users.

Then I became involved in a project at my library to evaluate and rewrite the automated emails sent out by our integrated library system (ILS), Sirsi. These include courtesy notices (your book is due soon), overdue notices (your book is overdue), billing notices (you have now been charged for the overdue book), and more. This was one of my favorite projects in my time as a UX librarian, and I’ve now become the kind of person who corners friends and acquaintances at parties to talk about the importance of a good email subject line.

In this spirit, I’ll share my top three tips for useful, usable email notices.

#1. Make sure the email gets the point across without being opened.

The subject line and the snippet—the first 50 or so characters of the email’s body—should contain the gist of the email itself. In a weird inversion of a typical for-profit marketing strategy, we don’t want users to open the email if they understand its purpose.

To test this, send a dummy email to yourself and take a look at it in your email client and on your smartphone. Without opening the email, what do you see?

Bad example

Library notice – Dear patron, Thank you for using the XYZ Library. We appreciate your continued use of our services. Your library items are…

Good example:

Library items due in 3 days – Hello, You checked out some item(s) from the XYZ Library that will be due in 3 days. Please renew or return…


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#2. State the facts without blaming the user.

Some of these automated email notices are giving bad news to the patron. The email should state these facts neutrally and avoid imparting blame. Mistakes happen, for both the patron and library staff. For instance, the patron might have returned an item but a staff member accidentally shelved it without checking it back in. Or perhaps the email was sent out automatically a mere two minutes after the patron had actually returned it. With this in mind, the email should state the facts without assuming what happened, and it should include contact information in case the user has a question.

Bad example

You have been fined for the following items since you have not yet returned them.

Good example

You have been fined for the following items because we did not receive them back on time.

#3. Don’t be afraid to use an informal tone.

Automated emails don’t have to sound like they were written by a robot. When it’s appropriate, your email can sound informative and friendly! It’s okay for email communication to be less formal-sounding than a snail-mail letter. (Within reason, of course. Overdue and billing notices should avoid jollity.) You can use contractions, use the salutation “Hello” instead of “Dear patron,” and even impart enthusiasm when it’s relevant.

Okay example

Subject: Requested library item available for pickup

Friendlier example

Subject: Good news! Your library item is available for pickup

Read more about writing great emails

There’s much more to say about this topic, and if you’re feeling inspired by this post to examine your library’s ILS email templates, I encourage you to read more about it!

Excellent style guides:

About the email improvement project at NC State University Libraries by my colleagues and me:


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