Friday, May 26, 2006

Fines?

Jessamyn West at Librarian.net has a thoughtful post on the subject of library fines. Barb Misselt at the Multitype Librarian does, too.

I understand the hesitation that large libraries have in eliminating fines. Some of them rack up close to seven figures in fines annually, and that's a lot of operating budget to lose.

I would challenge smaller libraries whose fines are annually relatively small to make their libraries fine-free. My former library in Sidney, Nebraska was one of those libraries. The staff had convinced the board to eliminate fines before I started my tenure there, and that was fine with me. (no pun intended - really.)

The staff was seeing children who weren't able to use the library, because their parents couldn't afford the fines. And that didn't sit very well. They felt very strongly that those children who could least afford fines were the very children who most needed the library. Additionally, we really didn't care if you paid a quarter fine - we just wanted the book back! You would get a few notes from us if the book (or whatever - I'm using book as the universal material here) was drastically overdue, reminding you to return it. After three months, you got a bill for the book. It would usually turn up at that point, but we did have folks who would have to pay us for having lost the book.

We would occasionally discuss fines at library meetings in the Nebraska Panhandle, and there were a few libraries who also had eliminated fines. Those who had fines usually had amnesty days on a fairly regular basis, which usually resulted in enormous numbers of materials being dumped on the library on that day. Most of them were seriously considering asking their boards to allow them to eliminate fines, too...and the headaches that went along with them. The sob stories. The truly sad stories. The angry patrons. The forgetful patrons. One creative librarian solved the problem by handing the offending patron (usually a middle-school student) a dust rag, allowing them to dust the library to pay off the fine. Her library was always clean!

What most likely started out as a disincentive to keeping a book too long has become too much of a money-making venture for larger libraries. And that's a real shame. The kids who aren't going to the Major City Library because they owe a fine are the very kids who need the Major City Library the most.

Isn't there a better way to do this?

4 Comments:

Anonymous pkchrist said...

Fines really are a can of worms. Some of our libraries need the revenue. When my library opened on Sundays, the staff time was funded by fines. On the other hand, if the cost of sending notices and collecting fines was figured, it might well be more than the revenue.

It's too bad when people can't check out because of overdue fines, but the point that hasn't been mentioned is that incurring a fine is totally optional. Bring your books back on time, and there's no charge.

One of the comments on Librarian.net brought up the books belong to the community, not to the library. Should courtesy of other users (owners) play a role?

5:04 PM  
Anonymous SusanV said...

I'll have to 'fess up that I haven't actually done the research myself, but the directors I know who have gone fine-free have said that what they have read/researched has shown that return rates actually IMPROVE when going fine-free. I don't know how the psychology works here, but I suspect that for busy people, 5 cents a day isn't enough to make them come into the library, but the whole "disapproving librarian" aura (of which fines are a part) discourage them from coming in. So if we're talking convenience of other users, the point is to get the books back and fines may actually act as a perverse disincentive.

One of our rural library directors decided to go fine-free the day she found out that a high school student drove 20 miles one-way home and back between school and basketball practice rather than come to the library because she was embarassed over having overdues. We still have this librarian tongue-clucking image that works against us. Much like the director who had patrons dust, this woman put out a "guilt gourd" at the circ desk -- a prettily decorated gourd where people who felt guilty about returning things late could make free-will offerings.

Another blog story I came across on fines recently that broke my heart is at http://libraryosis.blogspot.com/2006/05/show-no-mercy_24.html .

Our local library has fines, but they have an automation system with email notification that they've set up so that a day before your books are due, you get an email reminder. I suspect many libraries have this capacity (or could start demanding it from ILS vendors!) but haven't thought of it. It's wonderful. No postage cost to the library, a friendly reminder instead of a punishment and by gosh, I've been MUCH better about getting books back on time since they started it.

My question is - what works? Are we going to stay in love with the idea that our patrons are irresponsible and we have to punish them to make them behave properly? Or are we going to dispassionately determine if fines/no-fines actually gets the books back better?

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Damon said...

I used to work at the Howard County Library in Maryland. My brother still does. We've never been fine free -- we're a fairly large system. They're actually fairly strict theoretically about collecting fines. But the circ people never really care unless it's a huge fine. If someone fusses about it, we just say OK -- it's waived.

We did, however, have that one family that signed up for at least 10 or so accounts and stole DVDs amounting to about $12,000. We had to call the cops if they ever came back in.

My thought is if someone had circumstances leading to the fine that normally wouldn't (if their history is clean) I would just waive the fine for them. My supervisors did the same, mostly, except for the branch manager and a couple other higher-up supervisors.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:23 PM  

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