Friday, January 06, 2006

Killing Off Fines Is Long Overdue

There's a very interesting discussion going on over at Librarian in Black about a Wall Street Journal article on library fines (and other government fees). I'll just let you go over and read that discussion, then come on back here for my comments. No, it's fine...I can wait.

(musical interlude)

OK, here goes my rant...

I hate library fines. They represent and embody all of the librarian stereotypes I have loathed for the 34-1/2 years I've been working in and for libraries.

I wish some daring library director or board would try the NetFlix model. You know: you can keep these things as long as you want, but you don't get any more until these come back. Set a limit of 25 books and three videos and five CDs (or whatever seems a reasonable number in your setting), and when the user hits that limit, his or her card is blocked from taking out anything else. But no more overdue fines, no fees, no "retribution" at all. Bring back some of the items, you can take some more.

This kind of publicity hurts us, and it hurts us over and over again. We want to see ourselves as the guardians of the public good, but we end up looking like nitpicking gremlins.

And by the way, despite what one of the respondents on LIB said, when I worked in the Buffalo and Erie County Library in the 1970s, whole families could be (and were) barred from borrowing anything from the library because of one miscreant in the household. And don't think that the circ clerk in my branch didn't enforce that rule like an avenging angel. No skip tracer ever born was better at identifying who lived where than Dorothy Childers.

Even if this is no longer the policy anywhere, people remember this from their youth, and the stigma continues to apply to us all.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you, George. I have a brand-new fines story of my very own, but I'm sharing it in a longer post about L2. Not sure if I'll go into all the detail, but you know what? I like your idea. Big-time.

Free Range Librarian

Anonymous said...

While I like the simplicity of that idea, what Netflix has going for it is that they charge a monthly fee to the users for the privilege of no late fines. If customers choose to permanently keep a DVD, they'll pay at least $10/month for it. And, Netflix has multiple copies of DVDs; my library frequently only has 1 copy of a book.

Anonymous said...

I hate library fines as well, and I am intrigued by the idea of replacing them with a checked out book limit. I wonder, though, if you are really advocating completely eliminating all fines.

For example, what about books someone has placed a hold on? AV materials that tend to have shorter check out periods? Do you think fines should kick in at some point? Would you support someone deciding that they simply want a book without paying for it, checking only that one out, and simply keeping it forever?

Ruth E. said...

My recollection of my college town's public library (25 years ago) is that if you had overdue materials you couldn't check out anything until ALL overdues were returned. No monetary penalty was charged to your record until materials were five weeks overdue, at which point they were declared lost and you owed the cost of the book plus a $5 processing fee. If you returned the book at that point you still had to pay the $5 processing fee. I always thought this was a good way of doing things - and certainly cut down on staff time and bookkeeping. Plus, it kept the clerical staff from being seen as those mean librarians who charge them fines. In the system at which I work now, the city is big on income generation, so I suspect it's pretty hopeless to try to get rid of fines at this point

Anonymous said...

I agree 110%. There are libraries with no fees. I don't know if it is still true today but when I lived in Olympia, WA, no fines, just a hold (sometimes-they didn't always enforce) on your account. It was great. Living now in a heavily fined library world (college and public), I can truly say I actually have a grudge against the libraries that fine. At the same time, I am endeared to the library that had the no late fee policy. While this is an emotional reaction, I think it is very important for libraries at this point in time to foster more friendly,personal relationships with library users. It's hard to feel that excited about a place that nickel and dimes you for being forgetful and busy sometimes.
I like Ruth's idea above.

Sarah Houghton (LiB) said...

I can see everyone's points. I can. I'd be very happy to see libraries become less nickel and diming. However, libraries have become reliant on fines and fees for funding. Our library staff wanted to lower the fines on AV items, but after looking at how much money we would lose, the director said no. Is this right? No. But it's reality. To get rid of fines or fees in any library, the funding structure would have to change.

I also have a concern about what Anonymous #3 said...what about items with holds? Items that currently have shorter check-out periods because of high demand (like DVDs)? What if someone gets a library card, checks out 20 things, decides to keep them, and simply never goes back to the library? In a state (California) where most libraries grant cards to any state resident, I could see this getting out of hand--I could get cards & "free" items from dozens of libraries... without a mark on my record.

David said...

My sister in law picked up for me a few of the local newspapers and magazines. In one of the magazines, Simply Bangalore, detailed a new private library library that has opened in Bangalore.

What was interesting in this discussion is the cost and services this library is offering. Would such a service work here in the US since its doing well in such a place as Bangalore?

Covers Bangalore from Yelahanka to Whitefield.

Refundable membership deposit: Rs 300

Every time you borrow a book: You pay 10% of the book's discounted price

In addition you pay R10 per delivery and pickup of your items

Lose the book you pay twice the library twice the cost of the book

Katie said...

Okay, not to nit-pick, but cardholders have to agree to a user policy when they sign up for a card. Libraries include their check-out limits and fee schedule as part of this policy, and have limits and fines available on paper and on-line. If people are careless enough to sign a user agreement without reading through it, any accumulation of fines and fees is their own fault. Where do patrons get off thinking that they are entitled to all the materials in the library at no cost, or without "retribution" on the library's side? I can understand embarassment, or lack of funds--been there, done that--but most librarians are not fire-breathing bureaucrats who delight in revoking privileges. If faced with a patron who wants to use the library and does not get defensive about it (i.e. belligerent, yelling, refusing to admit guilt), most librarians will work with the policy to allow use.
Getting rid of library fines is not the answer. How about encouraging a little personal responsibility on the part of the patrons instead of blaming the libraries for following their policies?

Anonymous said...

No one likes paying fines, but there's an easy way to avoid it; simply return materials on time. In our library, we give every patron a checkout receipt with the due date, and we tell them the due date as well. Patrons can renew materials in person, by phone, or on the internet. If someone has a problem like an illness or family emergency, they can always contact us and we can work something out. I have to say, arguing with people about fines isn't my favorite part of the day either, but it does happen. Interestingly enough, in our metropolitan area, there is one library system that does not have overdue fines (all others do have them), and the fine-free library system is notorious for losing materials, and never having the most wanted stuff on the shelves. Fines are an incentive to return materials, and also a revenue stream for increasingly less-funded libraries, and I doubt they will go away.

Thomas said...

Interestingly a rural norwegian library did a study of the effects of fines on return rates. The study shows that there is no effect of fines. Reminders are the one thing thhat makes a difference. This is probably more relevant for libraries with small groups of users or in areas with greater sosical control, but still I think we should think carefully about what fines does to our image. Since use in libraries are moving from borrowing to using, we should rethink both our policies for how we treat people who borrow material (our allies, not our enemies) and encourage returning material with incentives and other positive ways of inducing a sense of responsibility.

Steve said...

Your position appears reasonable in relation to libraries where loans are being transacted for leisure purposes.

In a university or college library, however, scarce resources for learning must circulate quickly or other students will suffer. In my institution 'long loan' materials are exempt from fines (unless held for another user), but we do charge fines on short loan and desk reference items. I see no way round this.

Anonymous said...

I once worked in a public library that did not charge fines. Our loss rate was no bigger than that of other similar libraries that DID charge fines. I think that library now DOES charge fines, because the public perception agrees with several of those who commented: people SHOULD be encouraged /punished /required to return books on time. The same thinking that has so many states charge high fines on cigarettes has folks suggest that FINES are needed "to teach people a lesson." too bad.

And, as the OCLC "Perceptions..." supports, libraries are NOT "the information place."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I have lived in New York City too long, but the first thing that popped into my head was the idea of people stealing books.
I'm not worried about lost revenue from dropping fines so much as lost materials. If you set a limit of 25 books, 3 videos and 5 cds, I could easily walk in there, check out $500 worth of materials in one day, and never set foot in that library again and feel no guilt or pinch in my wallet because there is no fee, nor would I be feeling any social pressure because the library staff would not be making me feel guilty if I never went there again.

Having no consequences for an action implies it is not that important. Like many others have said, the difference between Netflix and the public library is that Netflix is charging a monthly fee for the service. If we were to take a patrons credit card number and charge him for any books/materials that were not returned after a certain amount of time (say, 6 weeks or 6 months, whatever), that would be one thing, but many people who use the library do not have credit cards.

I would encourage people to read the book Freakonomics to learn about incentives-what makes people do the things they do-if you haven't already. It would shed an interesting light on the idea of fines in the library.

egyarnetsky said...

I believe there can be a happy medium. My library has fines, but we also have a five-day grace period (except for vhs/dvd).

Our patrons like the grace period and I have received many a smile when I tell them they don't have a fine.