Fines, Fines, Everywhere Are Fines…

Earlier today I responded to a Twitter post this way,

My opinion on library fines in 140 characters, or fewer.

Reading the responses to the original tweet fourteen hours later and the rather small sample size overwhelmingly agrees with me. Most of the the respondents appear to be talking about public library experiences, rather than academic, but I think this is an area where there is little difference between the two settings.

In my previous library we did away with overdue fines years ago. When our then-new Head of Access Services started he asked where the fines money (which was a paltry amount) went to, the answers he was getting were either an “I don’t know” or a vague “a general fund.” It didn’t take long for him to determine that taking traditional overdue fines created unnecessary work for his employees and unnecessary frustration for our patrons. So, with a wave of his hand fines were eliminated from our policies and all the land was happy again.

Vengeance is never a good service model.

Well, not really, we still lived under the reign of the demon queen, but that’s neither here, nor there.

The point is though, that fines were removed and we in Access Services were pleased to not have to work with a cash register or be responsible for cash anymore, and our patrons were happier not to be bothered with $.25 a day fines, or whatever they were. Going fine-free made the library better for all of us and had no affect on how poor we were. (We were, in fact getting poorer by the day at a rate far exceeding the $30 a week we’d collect in fines.)

“But how did you punish patrons for overdue books?”

If that is truly your question then you and I differ on a fundamental level on our approach to library patron service.

Punishment of bad behavior should not be our purpose or attitude in any kind of library. For one thing, there are always new patrons. Of these new patrons there will always be some bad seeds who don’t know or care about proper stewardship of library property. Punishing the wrongdoers will never eliminate the wrongdoers. There are always more behind them, and so it becomes a never-ending battle of the self-righteous librarian* and the patron who couldn’t care less. Vengeance is never a good service model.

I know that going fine-free isn’t for every library. When your total library budget is dependent on fines for the mere existence of your library, then you probably are frightened at this notion, or at least regretful that you can’t get rid of them. But, if your library cannot show a significant benefit to the traditional daily fines because someone didn’t finish Moby Dick in three weeks (I think it took me six months, and I skipped a couple chapters), then you may want to seriously consider removing them altogether

“But the books, the books, the boooooooks!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total librarian libertarian on this issues. There are some very good reasons to charge a patron money.

  1. The book is damaged.
  2. The book never came back.

In my perfect world these are the only two reasons to ever charge a patron money that is not either in their school tuition or tax structure. I like the phrase “cost of replacement” for a descriptor of these charges. One could keep it simple and charge the price for an equivalent new replacement via, or make a guess at how much the cost of the book, plus the cost of processing it for library use would be including staff time and raw library materials, like bar codes, tattle tape, and spine labels.

But, alas, we do not live in my fantasy library world where library fines don’t exist and we no longer stamp due dates with 19th century technology while the 3-D printer hums away in the corner.

No, we don’t. We live in a world where my current library took in several thousand dollars in fines last year. No one can sneeze at that amount, I don’t care how rich you are. We have relatively low monograph circulation which accrue $.25 a day fines. But relatively high short-term loan (i.e. “reserves”) circulation which accumulates at $1.00 per hour. This is where we are making our money. But here’s the thing. Only the undergraduates and public borrowers get charged the fines. Graduates, faculty, and staff are all exempt from the fines. They accrue, but are waived as a matter of course.

I ask you, then, if charging undergraduates fines doesn’t deter students or faculty later in their careers to be better library patrons what is the use of a fine other than a crass money grab by the institution?

One reason to possibly maintain the status quo is that the $1.00 an hour fines on reserve items may really encourage return of the items so that other students may use them. I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but that probably works. Once they see the $48.00 charge on the two-hour checkout they kept over the weekend the book comes back in a hurry.

We still don’t necessarily charge the patron that amount. If it’s a first-timer we’ll waive the charge and place a note in the student’s record so everyone knows the patron knows the policy.

So, if not all patrons are being charged the fines, and fines may easily be waived at the discretion of any public services supervisor, and there is not clear evidence of deterrence from future bad behavior (as with our daily monograph fines) why maintain the practice?

Slouching Toward Fine-Free

To my library’s credit we are beginning to lurch in the direction of a fine-free library. It will be years, if ever, before we are there, but we’re beginning down that path. We’re in the process of changing our ILS from Millennium (yes, we’re still on Millennium) to Alma (much prettier). We are taking advantage of this opportunity to reexamine all of our policies to better meet the needs of our patrons, and ourselves. One Alma feature which we will be sure to make use of is the auto-renewal feature, for graduates, faculty, and staff, at least. Since we’re not charging these people, anyway, there is no point in accruing those fines only to waive them, anyway. By turning on this feature we are eliminating a frustration for our patrons and our staff. Surely, eventually, fines will accrue once the last renewal is reached, but this will delay that time for a good long while.

We are told that we must continue to charge fines, when possible, but we have a new Dean coming in next month. The hope is that she will, too, question the value and the policy of charging some, and not others, fines that may or may not create a substantial help to our budget. But, for the time being, I still feel like Bob Cratchit every time I stamp a due date in a book, and I’m still peddling library fines from twenty year-olds.

*In this context, anyone who works at a library is a “librarian.”

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