I didn't want Amanda to have the dilemma of deciding whether or not to approve my comment, so I thought I would comment on her (apparently controversial) library late fee post over here.
As a public librarian who also does collection development [disclaimer: not a circulation person that actually has to deal with people and their fines], I often come across items that are "billed"--that is, have been checked out and never returned. In my opinion, billed items cause a lot more problems for people than slowly accruing (at 10 cents a day) overdue fees. I have also encountered many people (and I am sure that there is a secret legion of others who are afraid to come back to the library) with late fees over $10.00--the level at which they are ineligible to check out or hold books or use the public computers--who were forced to return to the library because their children have to check out books for summer reading, or they have no computer at home and need to use ours to look for a job, since theirs has recently disappeared. These people are angry, or embarrassed, or sad, or some combination of these things, because they owe the library money and they haven't paid it for whatever reason. Unfortunately library staff allowed to let these patrons do anything at all (other than browse the reference collection--whee!) unless they get their late fees below the $10.00 mark. As Amanda points out, these are most likely the people that the public library is keen on serving: those that can least afford to lose library privileges due to restrictive fine policies. How to reach the untold number of people who are currently unable to use the library due to fines is one problem; my concern is how to keep hundreds more from joining them every year because of our insistence on clinging to late fees as an appropriate punishment for overdue books.
Perhaps what the patrons with fines don't know is that what we really want is the item returned--if you actually bring it back, $3.00 is the maximum that we will charge per item. If you don't bring it back, however, we have to try to recover item replacement costs, perhaps including an ominous sounding "processing fee." From my perspective as someone who orders items, it is much more time consuming to run a report to find billed items, try to determine which ones merit replacing, and go through the ordering process (bringing up issues like back order, out of stock, out of print), not to mention the collections process that many libraries go through to get something back from patrons with very large fees. If lack of information is the case, perhaps the library needs to be more open about its policies on overdue and billed items.
On the other hand, perhaps human nature is actually at the root of the problem. As a lifelong fine-accruer myself, it isn't due to lack of love or respect of the library, or my fellow patrons, or fear of consequences, or anything else remotely sensible that has motivated me to keep items long past their due date. It is sheer laziness. Or, at the very least, absent-mindedness. I'm not sure that any fine policy would change this behavior, but something like what Amanda has described (you keep it, you've bought it) might work better for a person like me. One of the problems is, no doubt, that public libraries have very little recourse when it comes to getting their items back. Whereas an academic library might be able to, for example, prevent students from graduating if they don't return their library books, the most a public library can do is pay a collections agency to try to get money out of people who probably don't have that money to spare in the first place.
Once in a while, public libraries will try to encourage people to bring back overdue and billed items by holding an (usually unpublicized) Fine Free Day. In my experience, the administration is usually a bit resistant to the idea, because someone always feels that patrons will take advantage of the idea of such a lenient day to hold their overdue and billed items until they know they can return them with no consequences. This is one example of not trusting our patrons. Some of the people who replied to Amanda's post probably said things like "but you work in a medical library, in the public library . . ." [fill in the blank]. In the public library, as in any library, there are going to be people who take advantage of the system to steal materials. There are going to be people who don't understand the policies. There are going to be people who destroy library property, etc. etc., perhaps at a higher rate than the medical students that patronize a special library like Amanda's. However, the majority of public library patrons (in my experience) are worthy of trust. They appreciate the library for what it offers, both in terms of materials and computer access.
What I am trying to say here, in my meandering way, is that I believe the current system has serious flaws. In this economic climate, having to pay down library fines can make a serious impact on an already strained budget, especially for those who arguably need the public library the most. On the subject of budgets, it is also true that public libraries get a certain amount of yearly revenue from library fines. The question is whether that revenue is enough to balance the staff time spent dealing with overdue and billed items. I seriously doubt it. There has to be a better way to ensure that patrons are able to continue using the library, even with the occasional late item, while at the same time
I don't have a template for implementing a fine-free system at my library, and I can't guarantee that it would work any better than our current policies. But I can say that some of the honestly heartbroken people that I have had to turn away because of fines would be better served with a different system in place. And, as some might argue, if public opinion is important to libraries in a time when our budgets are in jeopardy, perhaps we need to consider ways to make our patrons--past, present, and future--feel like we trust them to responsibly use the services we offer.