Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The (Fine) Killer Strikes Again!

My post about library fines has sparked more interest than anything on this blog in a long time. Talk about a good news/bad news situation. I love the action, but I wish it could be about some new and challenging service, or a discussion of Library 2.0 as thoughtful and well-reasoned as Walt Crawford's, or anything as intellectually stimulating as Lorcan seems to be able to so effortlessly toss off. Nope, we're down here in nickel and dime land. *sigh*

OK, let me respond to several of the comments that have been made on my piece, and, with her permission, on Alane's follow-up.

First, my comments were about public libraries. I know that academic and public libraries work in very different ways, and the need for a piece of information in demand by everyone registered in one class might require a more sophisticated system of sanctions to function.

Second, I have no problem with sending a notice to Patron A that Patron B has put a hold on an item, and could you please return it?

But that's as far as I'm willing to back off. Yes, I do sincerely think that fines should go. In fact, when I was a library director in Ohio back in the 1980s, and times were relatively flush, I proposed just such a scheme to my board. And I got shot down almost immediately, for most of the reasons cited by the commentators on my post.

Fines seem to bring out our most evangelical fervor. Look at the language people use to describe why we can't dump fines:
  • "Inducing a sense of responsibility."
  • "How about encouraging a little personal responsibility on the part of the patrons instead of blaming the libraries for following their policies?"
  • "Users have the obligation to share library resources with others in the community, and to exercise good judgment in the use of library resources."
I don't believe that libraries should be in the business of teaching personal responsibility. I don't believe that anyone other than librarians believes that there is a social contract between the user and the library that represents some sort of Platonic ideal of the republic. I don't believe that libraries help their case in the court of public opinion when they charge a six year old for accidentally kicking the copy of Dr. Seuss under the couch and forgetting it for a month.

I do sincerely believe that anything that creates a perception of a barrier between the user and the library needs to come down. And one of the things that people repeatedly cite as a reason not to use libraries is overdue fines. Sure, more parking, longer hours, and an unlimited supply of the latest best sellers and videos wouldn't hurt either. But one thing at a time, OK?


Anonymous said...

George: I don't believe that libraries should be in the business of teaching personal responsibility.

Excellent point. I think librarians occasionally fall into the trap of considering themselves some sort of authority figure, when they really aren’t and shouldn’t be. For some reason, we feel we need to teach a lesson, in ten cent increments, to delinquent borrowers.

Librarians should take a step back and seriously consider what type of relationship they wish to have with their community. Are you here to teach a lesson? Ok, put that in your Mission Statement and jack up the fines to really show 'em. But if you’re not, then back off of this “instilling a sense of responsibility” kick, have a little faith in the general good of the public, and relax about fines.

PS: Suppose one person checked out a book and kept it long overdue. Perhaps in the mean time three people came looking for it, couldn’t get it, and learned a valuable lesson in the importance of returning materials on time…

Anonymous said...

Lets be a little practical here. Our college library does not charge fines for overdue books. We do charge for lost books. We put holds on grades, registration, and transcripts to get our books back. If someone has an overdue book, they can not take anything else out until they return or renew the book. Keeping library materials beyond the due dates is actually illegal in New York State!