Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Meditation on Library Late Fees

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.

Meditation Index


Anonymous said...

One thing you mentioned that I thought I would say about fines as revenue. The way my public library, and any public library I have worked in/patronized is set up so the fines go directly into the City's general fund, not in a specific library fund. The library, in turn, only gets a minute percentage of those fines back as revenue. Same goes with replacement costs for lost/damaged items. The libraries have to pay for replacements out of the libraries' annual budgets instead. So, in that sense, more than just the idea of fines is flawed.

Also, I did mention in one of my comments that didn't get posted on her blog that we do work with patrons who need help. We do waive fines, we do set up payment plans, we do extended check-out periods, we do have 'fine-free' patrons who have limited/no transportation. They simply have to ask for help or for options because we don't know details about their situations, financial or otherwise. And yes, I know asking for help is tough and embarrassing for some.

And my particular library admins LOVE amnesty MONTH. A whole month. They care more about increased patron count (which helps for budgetary issues/grants/state aid) more than they care about patrons withholding books in preparation for the 'no fine month'. Because they understand fines are really little revenue for the library itself.

One thing in working circulation that I've discovered the hard way. Public libraries do have to answer to the taxpayer. Their taxes support the library, so we have to be responsible for the way we spend and for the way we collect items. We hear everything from "I pay your salary" to "Why do you have 8 copies of this conservative pundit's book and 2 of the liberal pundit's book?" to "Why don't you go knock on their door and demand they return this book because I want to read it NOW!?"

So, we have to have a system in place that holds up to that level of 'in your face'. So, people understand fines and late fees, whether it actually works or not.

Doddi Jonsson said...

I didn't see any comments on Amanda's post, but I do find Amanda a bit condescending (right word?)... she has an idea about no-fine and appears not happy that so many people believe in the late fees-system. Sort of like "My idea is better than yours"-attitude. Reminds me of a kid in a sandbox...

My belief is this: it shouldn't matter who you are - the fine is always the same. In my library the most important thing is always getting the item back, one can always pay the fine later or on several visits to the library... etc. But I don't believe in getting rid of the late fees, because a person that holds the book too long is in most cases like this blogger said: lazy (or forgetful). And I do sympathize with the single mother that cannot afford the fines, but like has been mentioned: you can always pay later.

And late fees are certainly not discriminative, it's a bit insulting to say that. Since in most cases the late fee seems not to matter, I'm afraid that having "no fine" can make popular books less available. We could never ever implement a system where fees are based on the patron's income (too complicated and that would be discriminative), and I believe that "no fines" for 2,5 or 3 months but then a single "big" amount (10 dollars maybe)... I believe that kind of system would not work.

In short: it's an idea that Amanda provided but I simply and very politely disagree with her. My library (I love saying this) is a public library, and through my experience with patrons, 99% or more of them agree or are very okay with the late fees system. Why then bother to change it?

My name is Doddi Jonsson and I live in Iceland

Amanda said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Anna! This is the type of thoughtful discussion I was hoping for. I really like your point that perhaps your patrons don't realize that fees are capped at $3 per item if the item is returned. I think whereas some people aren't afraid to explain their story and ask for a deal, others are just not good at dealing with authority figures and shy away from conflict. They're the ones who would accrue a fine and say "oh well," and never return to the library out of shame/what-have-you. I've often explain to new patrons in my library who are shocked at our lack of late fees that we just want to get the items back in a timely fashion out of respect for their colleagues. Of course, we have some bad seeds. Any community has some of them, but I feel that it's far better to treat all patrons with trust than with suspicion due to those bad seeds.

Good point on the fine forgiveness days! They have also been faced with resistance out of a fear of patrons rampantly "abusing" the system, yet in fact the stories I've read by other librarians highlight a patronage just grateful for the second chance.

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