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.