fine, @ your library

Hot topic lately is library fines. I have a few personal fine anecdotes.

  • When I was in library school, I served on the library fines appeals committee. This was a terrible job. We served for the better part of a few days, reading hundreds of appeals. I served with one undergrad student, one faculty member and one library staffperson who had an advisory role. Our job was to look at people’s fine appeals and decide who got a reduced fine and who didn’t. The faculty member was on the committee as some sort of penance, I am certain because he disagreed with levying fines in almost every case. The library staff person advised us consistently not to reduce any fines. My approach was somewhere in the middle. Leniency for first time offenders or people with what sounded like “good reasons” more strict with other people. On the other hand, this was in an environment where the basic premise was that fines were necessary to get books — and more importantly, reserve items — back in a prompt fashion. I was always in favor of more creative solutions to these problems than allowing the library to become some sort of taxing authority. The library did not allow payment plans. The library did not allow people to work off their debts. The library did not allow (in almost all cases) people to replace books they had lost. I don’t recall whether the fine money collected by the library went TO the library or, like in many cases, to the parent organization. Some people had literally thousands of dollars in fines. Some people wrote appeals that explained why they should not be responsible for reading signs, losing books, or returning a book to the wrong library system.
  • I did outreach for a public library and found that, almost without exception, the teens I met who did not come to the library stayed away because they believed they had huge fines and were, in some way, no longer welcome. Our library fines were steep — twenty cents per day for books with no grace period, one dollar per day for DVDs and videos — and once you hit five dollars you could no longer check out materials or use the library computers (unless you used them as a non-patron which was an option but not well-advertised). We had at least one member of the circulation team who treated fines as some sort of a moral stain and I was even shy about talking to her about my fines because I didn’t want to deal with the teasing. I would tell teenagers, on the down low, that because of our computer crash of several years ago, any old fines they had from when they were kids were probably not in the system anymore and that they should stop by the library “just to check” and maybe renew their library cards. At that same library, I started a food4fines program where people could donate canned food to the food bank one week a year and get money off of their fines. The Richards Free Library in Newport New Hampshire had a fine amnesty week during National Library Week. Just ask and all is forgiven. My old director said that fine revenue was essential to the bottom line of our library’s operating budget.
  • When I married my (now ex-) husband, he had several hundreds of dollars worth of university library fines. The school would not release his diploma until he paid them. I always wondered what sort of a long-term standoff this would be if he never paid the fines. Would they keep the diploma in a drawer forever? How many diplomas were in that drawer?

Like many topics, I have no easy answer to the idea of library fines. I have six or seven library cards that I use regularly and none of the libraries I use has a fine system at all. A few have a “fine box” which you can put money into if you are feeling particularly guilty about an overdue book. One library does cut off your borrowing privileges after a book is several weeks overdue, at which point they have already sent you three (3!) letters in the mail to tell you to bring the book back.

As you may be able to guess, I am not the world’s most conscientious library patron when it comes to returning books by some arbitrary date, but I have always been a stickler for bringing them back if someone else has requested them. So I wonder if technology has helped solve this problem somewhat? It’s important to get the books back, sure, but mainly it’s important to have them available to other people who might want them if you’re not doing anything with them but letting them gather dust under your bed. I envision a future library, with a perfect OPAC (and a perfect set of patrons who know how to use its many features) where people can request a book not on the shelf, sending an email to the person who has the book checked out in some overdue state who will then (perfectly) return it to the library so it’s available for the other patron who has been notified by email to come and get it.

Of course, the libraries that I work with mostly don’t have online catalogs and their patrons mostly don’t use email, so my little utopian vision is a ways off in this neck of the woods. However, I think this beats saying that libraries need to be more like video stores (even though they have totally different revenue models) or that we should treat our patrons more like a) customers, as opposed to someone who has a shared ownership interest in the library and the library’s interests, or b) naughty children who need to be taught via negative reinforcement how to treat “other people’s things”, or c) constant drains on the library’s scarce and precious resources. This doesn’t even address the idea of fines being extra punitive on poor people who can least afford to pay them OR go buy books elsewhere.

22 thoughts on “fine, @ your library

  1. Ah! Fines! I totally agree that there should be some more creative/non-money-based alternative to fees. And replacing a lost book with another copy should absolutely be an available option.
    The Dublin City Public Libraries also charge you if you want to reserve a book, or, get this, have them bring in a book from another branch! It is only this year that they’ve started letting patrons return books to branches other than the one they were loaned from (with the exception of one particular branch where I was told they “already get enough returns”!?). It’s really frustrating, because I want to advocate use of the public libraries, but I can’t ignore how non-user-friendly our library system is.

    I’ve been putting off the task of composing a really thorough letter to someone(!?!) just to give some feedback – because, hey, maybe they don’t know how horrible an experience it can be to use the public library system here!

  2. The public library I just started at as a Librarian I makes it a point to refer to library users as “customers,” which seems very foreign to me. I guess the logic behind it is an emphasis on customer service, but I find myself continually using “patrons” and getting corrected. I like your point about ownership in the community and the library’s interests.

    They also turn people over to a collection agency for not paying their fines after a relatively short period. This was supposedly done to improve the library’s credit rating. I didn’t even know libraries had credit ratings! People are pretty used to this idea here, but apparently it was madness when they first instituted this policy a few years ago. I hate it, and I wish it didn’t make so much financial sense.

    I also wish we could have the perfect patrons. Fines (or “extended loan fees,” as the euphamism goes) seem to be a necessary punitive step toward getting people to return things rather than keeping them forever.

  3. What you’ve envisioned is already in place, at least at UVA. It is the RECALL option. If a book is checked out and a patron needs it, he recalls the item from the patron, and the patron receives an email stating they have a week to return the item. After a week if the patron still has the book checked out, he is fined a dollar a day. If an item has a lot of requests, the loan period is shortened to get the book to the next patrons as quickly as possible. Patrons still are not happy with this system. I think you need to focus on developing perfect patrons like you mentioned in your post.

  4. Just for the fact that even Blockbuster has had to give up the fee schedule should show us a thing or two about where the market is. I am a librarian. I take books (only if there are no requests) back late pretty often-as I am trudging along to get my overdue books back, and as I try and combine the stress and guilt with the urge to not look at ANY more books as I would only have to make the trip again, I think about NetFlix and how lovely it would be… The co-op efforts of Inter-Library loan should help cut the “needs” base and I do feel that we can put a thing on our Circ. policy saying “You’ve had it X amount of weeks/months/years, you bought it”…We have to stay current, in my very very humble opinion. We are alienating some of our most precious patron base, the people who arent looked to in marketing programs of profit driven corporations, the communities in need. Get rid of fees and also if there IS an outstanding due base, a community based charity fund/canned goods/whatever fee forgiveness program could really help the library get in touch with its populace. I dont understand how a credit rating might be more important than that…

  5. I’ve been thinking about fines a lot lately. It does seem problematic to charge people money for bringing things back late, although at this point, I’m having a hard time thinking of an alternate way of dealing with patrons. I don’t like the idea of punishing them, but there needs to be some way of ensuring that they bring their loans back when they’re due. This topic needs a lot of thought. Right now, I’m just scratching my head.

    Gabriel: Your library *insists* on “customer”? To the point of correcting you when you say “patron”? How bizarre! At my library, we use both words interchangibly. But forcing people to use on or the other seems…oddly Orwellian.

  6. We had the recall system where I went to library school and it mostly worked great. They were just rolling out email notifications at the time and there was definitely some edginess as far as who would ultimately be responsible for the patrons receiving the email. I seem to recall having to sign something which said that it was my responsibility to check my email for recall notices and make sure they weren’t getting caught in spam filters or whatever….

    The thing that I took away from the fines appeals committee service time is that there are people who, like me, hafve a lot of things to do and put the book returning low on the priority list, even if it’s going to cost a little bit. And then there are people who don’t know the rules, don’t learn the rules and don’t care about the rules but get really indignant when you say that their misuse of library materials is inconveniencing people (this was a HUGE problem with reserve materials which I thought was mostly a big kludge because of copyright not because of anything the library had to answer for). I’d love to be able to make things easier to patrons in the first group [don’t return them unless people need to them] and a little more clear for patrons in the second group [things to sign when you get a library card, some sort of orientation, something]

    The faculty did have unlimited checkout periods except for if books were recalled. They did, however, have to bring the books in to the library once a year to make sure they hadn’t lost them or destroyed them or something. They were terribly pissed off and huffy about this, so I’m not sure you can have any system of control or inventory that won’t make some people hopping mad.

  7. I’ve worked in two academic libraries (one in the US, the other in Australia) which had policies of never issuing or collecting overdue fines. I have to say that 90% of the time it works ok and people don’t abuse the system and there are fewer hassles for everyone. But it’s not a perfect system either. One little anecdote: The administrative assistant for a retiring member of faculty dumped a stack of a dozen books on the circulation desk. These books had been overdue for 3 years. But the worst thing is that not all the books were from our library – a few were from a public library and were probably overdue for a similar period. It made me wonder if my library’s leniency was spoiling our faculty and making them bad patrons at other libraries.

  8. It seems a lot of people have this ideal notion that fines can just go, and people can be decent. What seems to be forgotten is that the library books, unlike the items from Netflix or Blockbuster, are public property. They belong to everyone in the community, and when one of those who likes to bring things late indulge their lack of responsibility, they deprive everyone else. Would I rather something other than fines? Possibly, but more often than not, without the penalty, libraries would never get their items back. And unlike Netflix and Blockbuster, libraries can’t necessarily just “eat” the cost of lost items. I am just asking, why is it the whole idea of getting rid of fines is because to make people who don’t return their items on time feel better? I know if I agree to borrow something, it’s not mine, it has to be returned. Is this really such a hard concept to understand, or is personal responsibility just not a factor? I really want to know.

  9. When I was in library school someone did a presentation on how unfair and unjust it was to levy fines against homeless people. Many in the class got up in arms about this horrible injustice. My question was what happens when the first homeless person walks out the door with the GRE Prep book (for example) and never brings it back? Is it more unfair to charge him a fine or more unfair to deny a hundred other people access to that material? Now multiply that a thousand-fold. If every homeless person who walks in everyday walks out with a book and never returns it your library collection will quickly be decimated. Something tells me that stripping a library book and selling it to a used book store or junk shop is probably a lot easier than giving blood or other quick cash fixes.

    As for the Blockbuster analogy, am I the only one who remembers the class action lawsuit when people found out the hard way that while there were no fines they had “bought” the movie after 30 days? If you think haggling over $10 in fines is fun wait until people start coming in when the library has emptied their bank account or maxed out their credit card because they “forgot” to bring back 20 children’s books for a few months.

    Also, implementing a hold or recall system assumes that everyone who needs a book will hold or recall it. My anecdotal experience is that casual patrons won’t bother. That is the whole argument for having books available on the shelf. Around here with renewals people can basically sit on a book for four months. If you haven’t gotten to a book in four months you aren’t getting to it. Good luck recalling a book someone has been sitting on for two years.

    Also, as someone who has been on the business end of a few recalls all I can say is nuts to that. The first thing on my “When you run the library you can do it however you want” list is to stop recalls. Can’t renew? Fair enough. Have it back within a few days or else? I got it first. Why does johnny-come-lately take priority?

  10. I am an administrator for an academic library and have found that, sadly, we must rely on fine revenue in order to keep the library functioning. With over 300 public computers in our main library, it costs us $75K/year to keep those up to date on a 4 year cycle. Unfortunately, the funds we have left in the budget once you take out the collection money and wage/benefit money is barely enough to cover operating expenses. It is certainly not enough to cover the cost of updating computers, replacing ancient furniture, replacing worn carpeting, etc. I believe that this may be the case for many libraries, or at least those who rely on decreasing state support.

  11. I was at a program at ALA last year at which Sandy Berman spoke and, not surprisingly, the topic of fines came up. One woman in the audience (and I wish I knew, or could remember, who it was) said her library had done an experiment and found that people tended to return their books in about three weeks regardless of whether or not there were fines or how much those fines were. I can only add anecdotal evidence to that finding, but I know that the presence or absence (usually due to my being a library employee) of fines has never made much difference in when I return books. They’re almost always a wee bit late.

    I do think we need some alternatives to fines (or “extended loan fees”–talk about Orwellian!). At my previous job, where the fines were quite steep, there were some kids who had about $95 in fines, mostly built up around the time their mother died. Because of the fines, they weren’t allowed to check out books. Staff members would then complain that they spent all this time in the library but never got books out. I kept arguing that even if the library wouldn’t give them amnesty, we should at least let them work the fines off, because I very much doubted that they or their family had the money to pay them.

    I don’t want to be in the business of keeping kids away from books. If library fines are acting as a barrier–and I think they are–then they need to go. And Angel, it’s not that I’m out to absolve people of personal responsibility–I just think there are other, and better, ways of demonstrating it.

  12. Two things:
    1. I think there can be a difference between fines and legitimate replacement costs. The fine-free public library that I know of sends a “return it or pay the replacement cost of $amount” notice after a certain point. I think daily fines are a nuisance and contribute to a negative image of libraries/librarians, but would never argue that there should be NO recourse if a patron fails to return a book.

    2. Technology is started to offer a better option. My public library has optional email notices for overdues, holds, ILLs, etc. Not too long ago, they set it up so that instead of getting your first overdue message after you’re already racking up fines, you get a friendly email one day before your books are due reminding you to renew or return them. It’s all automatically generated through the ILS. I don’t know if it’s improved return rates with other library patrons, but it’s sure improved mine.

  13. I have a problem with fines where I work. I’m in a large city public library system (I’d prefer to not say where) and I was told that I could *never* forgive fines.

    When I asked the reason for this, I was told that the current mayor (who comes from a big business background) saw the library fines as being a revenue stream and that when we forgave fines, we were essentially stealing from the city.

    So the clerks on the front line get yelled at and abused and have no real recourse but the smile and apologize. Normally, the patron will pay the fine (often times in the most insulting manner possible) and move on with their life. However the vocal minority who do not pay go all the way through the city government until someone in the mayor’s office says “Well, that doesn’t seem reasonable.” and the fine is forgiven.

    More often than not, those same people who were told there job depends on following policy are formally reprimanded for not “being for flexible”.

    Essentially, the fine system has been turned into a political tool and the lowest rung of the hierarchy pays the price.

  14. I guess I am one of the very few who favor fines being applied to late returns.
    The concept is simple: use the items for free for a designated time period (chosen by the board/community/university as an appropriate length of time to read the book, watch the movie, finish the report, etc. and then make it available for the next borrower/browser–note: browsers will not always know to reserve an item found only in the computer catalog and not on the shelf in the area of interest!). If you feel the length of time is insufficient or inappropriate, you can do one of two things: keep it and pay the fine for the convenience of keeping it longer or present your argument to the director/board that the material type loan period is insufficient and see if the community agrees and changes it.

    I don’t like the idea of upfront fees for checking items out. Support for all library services should come from the community at large–whether via tuition/fees applied to all students or taxes applied to all taxpaying citizens. Note that the poor student on scholarship or lessened tuition or the untaxed homeless person is given the “break” needed at the start. Neither user is incapable of meeting the borrower agreement, since no fees apply unless the item is turned in late–which is a choice. One could argue that those with mental disabilities may in fact be incapable of meeting the borrower’s agreement. Has any library addressed that?

    Overall though, it’s simple. People who are perpetually late/flighty about dates may suffer. (These same people tend to pay penalties when the mortgage/credit card bill/electric bill/etc. don’t get paid on time. Too bad. Flightiness has its price.)

    What’s the harm in asking library card holders to agree to the terms of being a borrower and then applying a fine when they neglect to meet the terms of the agreement? How does this make the library unfair, mean, unpleasant? It doesn’t. (I’m sure those who feel otherwise also find the bank/electric company/meter maid, etc. unpleasant and mean. Which is ridiculous and shows a childishness which seems to be growing in the American population.)

    Some libraries offer “grace periods” but this should be written into the borrowers’ agreement (just like Blockbuster did for a while).

    Regarding libraries going the way of Netflix. Love the idea–but it means you can only get 10 books at a time (or however many), and no more until those are brought back. Most libraries though want increased circulation and limits are not in vogue. I LOVE the idea of limits though. I think it is a good way to share limited resources.

  15. I have always felt (coming from a public library background) that fines on materials should act as an incentive to return overdue materials, however in many cases once fines go beyond a certain point they act as a disincentive to patrons to come back and in some cases may have a stigmatising effect. I would also wholeheartedly support a lighter fining regime for children as we have a duty to kids to do everything to inculcate a love of reading/learning.

    As regards terminology I loathe the term ‘customer’ which implies a commercial relationship – all core services (at the very least) should be free and as far as I am concerned public libraries serve citizens NOT consumers. Surely patron, reader, member or borrower are all preferable to ‘customer’.

  16. Wow – there are libraries which fine children ? I have NEVER heard of this before. How old does a child have to be to get fined, or is it anyone with a library card ?

    I work in a library that doesn’t charge fines, but which is very hot on collecting money for lost or v. overdue books. The fines would be pretty impossible to administer as most of our users (see ? a middle way between ‘customers’ and ‘patrons’) post books back to us anyway, so they would be penalised for not living in the same city as the library.

    I always wondered how far universities took the ‘witholding your degree’ thing. Am very glad I stopped working in my uni’s library when I graduated, so I didn’t have to put up with angry students !

  17. My current public library has this fine system that is driving me bonkers. I am pretty good about returning things on time (as I live across the street from the library), but I sometimes return dvd cases without the case. My library:

    1. Never calls to tell me this. They put a note in their system which I cannot read. From the patron side, it just looks like they haven’t checked it in yet, so I keep getting fined day after day until I call and ask or come in and they let me know.

    2. When I do finally realize the problem and bring in the dvd, they still do not check it in until they find the case again. This can take weeks. I get charged an overdue fine EVERY SINGLE DAY.

    3. When I discuss this issue with staff, they say only one person can help me and he works 9-5 (funny, like *I* do). When I email him, there is no response. The last time this happened I had to write the director of the library to get any sort of response.

    4. As a result, I will never volunteer for them or give them any dough.

    My Uni wouldn’t release your transcript unless you paid your fines. So no grad school unless you pay fines!

  18. Pat was once arrested for having overdue library books. This was when she lived in Stow. She actually had to go to court. However, when she called the judge “M’Lord,” he decided she didn’t understand our judicial system and the matter was dropped. Ask her about it some time.

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