The Library Reloaded: Fines

It’s been on the brain for awhile, but I have been wanting to make a Library Reloaded post about fines. This week has been productive for writing so I might as well go for it.

Fines or late fees (as Leslie Burger likes to say) are a mechanism to ensure that material is return before or on the due date. Almost exclusively financial in nature, fines can range from a mere nickel to various higher denominations of paper money depending on the type of material, the loan period, and the amount of time past the due date. The purpose of this post is to consider the position of fines in the library world and some potential alternatives. Not all of these are truly viable, but let go of your preconceived notions and let the ideas get your thinking process going.

(Payment of lost materials, collection fees, and other administrative fees will not be discussed, as I think that represents a different financial category for libraries. -A)

1.) No fines for overdue materials.

This is by far the polar opposite of the status quo and represents the argument that accumulated fines are a barrier to access. By removing the financial penalties, you move closer to an ideal of unfettered access to library services and materials. It also avoids uncomfortable encounters with patrons who have high fines or creating financial pressures on individuals and families that rely on the library. On the backend, this gives back valuable staff time that would otherwise be dedicated to the accounting of the collection of fines and managing the money involved.

The tradeoff is the revenue lost for the library that the fines would generate. In addition, there would need to be an incentive created to encourage people to return books. A ‘no overdue’ policy could work in which borrowing is restricted or completely blocked on a card with library material that is overdue. Perhaps even something akin to “hold until a hold”; the capability of borrowing something indefinately until someone else asks for it. Under this concept, there would be a defined borrowing time (to ensure popular items get to multiple people); however, if there is no one else waiting for it, then the borrower can hang onto it for as long as they like. This presents a different set of logistics and collection management (such as “when does an item become lost?” and replacing materials on the shelf in order to facilitate serendipity), but I think with the right library, materials, and management, it could be feasible.

2.) Volunteering/Community Service

Rather than pay a fine, a patron could be given the option to work off their fines in several different ways. Volunteering hours at the library could provide additional manpower in a time when staff layoffs are prevalent. (For example, a New York man sorted books in exchange for fine forgiveness. They even offered him a part time position afterwards.) This could free up staff from doing routine or rote work and allow them time to work on other projects, classes, or even just free them up to be available to assist patrons.

The volunteering possibilities do not stop at the library doorstep. Volunteering in the community is another potential way a person could work off their fines. There are always service organizations and community projects that are looking for additional manpower. In exchange for time spent with those entities, the patron would earn a certain amount of fine forgiveness. This allows an individual to work on something that interests them, the organizations get the person’s time, and the library clears another patron to return to normal borrowing practices.

The easily recognizable cons are the loss of revenue as well as the added logistics of managing volunteers in the library. Right now, I cannot see any additional cons to this type of fine repayment; I hope that someone could point out to me whether I missed something or I’ve hit my mark in the comments to this post.

3.) Pay what you want

I thought of this concept when I was reading an article in Time about Panera Bread’s pay-what-you-want non-profit in Clayton, Mo.  In this establishment, there is only the suggested price; people who can afford more are encouraged to pay that or more while people in need are encouraged to take a discount. Why not library fines?

As it is right now, librarians and library staff bargain with patrons over fines everyday all over the country. This would shift the onus from the staff member to the patron. If people are going to talk and write about empowering their patrons, why not empower them at the wallet level? There could be some goodwill and publicity generated on behalf of the library, leading more people to settle their bills and get back to using the library.

The most overwhelming con on this idea is that the majority of individuals would not pay any fines. The article suggests that most people pay a huge percentage (90% or more) of the suggested price, but it doesn’t take a cynical person to think that library patrons may opt for less than the current amount. There is a risk of fine revenue loss; it would be an interesting study to see how much money was recovered when people were encouraged to pay what they wanted versus static fine amounts.

However, it could be a good opportunity to solicit a donation (I’m not kidding). Give them the option of paying what they want with money over the fine amount being donated to the library. They are already thinking about money so there is nothing wrong with planting a seed for a library monetary donation.

(The next time I am in a bargaining position with a patron over fines, I’m going to try this one out. Nothing like field experiments! –A)

4.) Bartering

Most commonly, there are “food for fines” programs in which donated food grants fine forgiveness. Unlike volunteering, this is the acceptance of goods in exchange for fine amounts. It creates a community benefit of a different kind as local aid organizations can collect donated items for their work. What could people donate? Food, clothes, school supplies, linens, and blankets are possible items. I could even imagine a library having a blood drive that provides fine forgiveness for donations. (Possible announcement title: “I bleed for books”) If there is an organization in the area looking to non-perishable items, the library could set up a donation program on their behalf. Like the other suggestions, it provides a different way of settling fines and getting back into using the library.

Again, there is a revenue loss involved here as well as the managing of a different set of logistics (in this case, physical goods). Again, I am at a loss for any form of deeper issue, though if someone wants to do “pheasants for fines” (a la “chickens for checkups”), I will need to see pictures of this.

5.) Other forms of quid pro quo

I read about a program where children are allowed to ‘read down’ their library fines. The same article talks about exchanging bike riding time (instead of using their car) for fine forgiveness. The only question I have is where to draw the line.

Could the library ask a patron to write a letter of support to a local official in exchange for fine forgiveness? (I’m guessing no, but onwards.) What about having the patron complete a survey about the library? (Such as programming preferences, types of materials they are interested in, suggestions for future services, and so forth.) Could we go so far as link health goals (e.g. weight loss, personal training) to fine reductions? (That is probably crossing the line, but just a thought.)

What else could a library ask a patron to do in exchange for the lifting of fines?

In these Library Reloaded posts, I enjoy imagining possibilities. I certainly hope this gets people thinking about fines; if anyone actually tries something else out (whether it is mentioned in this post or on your own), please leave a comment in the future. I leave you with one last question:

How do you imagine (or re-imagine) fines? What alternatives intrigue you?

Previous Library Reloaded posts: library cards, collections.

Library Day in the Life 5: Be Yourself No Matter What They Say

The phrase that serves as the latter half of the title to this entry is a lyric and repeated chorus at the end of the song by Sting, “Englishman in New York”. Sitting at my desk in the office listening to these words as I worked between research and email, I thought of what I would write for the Library Day in the Life Round 5. My last entry was a warmly regarded hand written entry; it’s hard to know where to go from there. But when I heard the lyric, I knew just what to I wanted to write.

Librarians by their very nature are agents of change. Even in the most basic of libraries, the collection is being updated with new titles, periodicals, and other materials. The real question that lays ahead for the profession is “What is change, anyway?” There are any numbers of answers to the question based on external forces (e.g. technology, web content, computer access, patron preferences) and internal forces (e.g. community served, library type, collection size, budget). And, naturally, there are people who promote some answers as the right answer, the only answer, and anything less is an problem.

In bringing this back to the refrain, it is a matter of letting libraries “be themselves”. If the best fit for the community served is to be an internet cafe or quiet reading space or community center, then go for it. Patrons just want story times and book discussion groups and a place to meet with a librarian one on one? Do it. The change that happens should be a reflection of the surrounding community. There are very few absolutes when it comes to libraries; beyond our principles and beliefs, everything else from design to materials to furniture to services is up for grabs.

This notion that if the library is not doing something (like being on Facebook or Twitter, having e-books, having a computer center, providing job training space, and so forth) that they are wrong or ancient is ridiculous. It would be like going from Vermont to Florida and saying Miami residents were not current since they don’t have any snowmobile retailers. If your patrons aren’t on Twitter or Facebook or have e-readers, then there is no need to provide content via those channels. Libraries, just like all politics, are local.

(Now, if you wanted to debate on the breadth of the disconnect between libraries and their patrons, that’s a whole different post.)  

Coming back to the refrain again, it is my sincere wish that my professional colleagues would “be [themselves], no matter what they say”. This paragraph is dedicated to my friends in particular, for I’ve heard some stories of their work related struggles. Whether it is a coworker, supervisor, fellow librarian, or the outside world placing the pressure, I believe that at the end of the day what matters is being true to yourself and the approach you take to librarianship. You’ll be happier when you go to bed at night, the library world as a whole benefits, and you leave your distinct mark on this incredible profession. Let the refrain be a comfort from a friend, may it give you the confidence to tackle the issues, and ignore the naysayers.

 Be yourself no matter what they say.

 Be yourself no matter what they say.

 Be yourself no matter what they say.

Be yourself no matter what they say.

Tuesday Discussion Items

Put that on your wedding registry! First, in shopping for a new apartment, my wife and I went to Bed Bath & Beyond. As I arrived before she did, I was wandering around the store when I saw an e-reader (pictured right) sitting on the shelf near the door. Yes, an e-reader in BB&B. A color one with a touch screen for under $200, at that. Barnes & Noble is the content provider, but from the options, it seems a lot like a Kindle. I couldn’t actually hold one since the display was quite fixed and non-interactive, but it really made me do a double take. Is it any good? I have no clue. But it’s being sold on the shelf of a store that does not come to mind when you think books. This really reinforces the my notion that, within five years, a company like Amazon will throw in a Kindle for free when you order five or more books.

(This is something that was discussed at a dinner I attended at ALA Annual; it’s raised some eyebrows when I said that I thought they would be giving them away within five years. I think this is proof positive it is headed that way, but I still have four years and eleven months to go.)

Tonight, I also saw a touch screen mp3 player on sale for under $100 at a CVS. That’s certainly a statement for market penetration.

Second, here are a couple of items for people to discuss:

Less than three weeks after the Times paywall went up, data shows a massive decline in web traffic. Inc. said it reached a milestone, selling more e-books than hardbacks over the past three months.

Read either or both stories and leave a comment please. What do these stories mean?

What does the success or failure of the Times online subscription mean for the internet? Does this herald a new pay age for content? What would news piracy look like? And what does the sale of e-books outpacing hardcover books really mean? Is the digital divide widening? Will other vendors appear on the e-book marketplace for libraries?

Let’s hear it!

Let’s Eat Peanut Butter

This morning, I was reading another article on Mashable when I saw this link to a story about the Old Spice marketing people making custom videos to answer fans. With a little help from the Twitterverse, people were tweeting and retweeting about getting the Old Spice guy to say a few words for libraries. Within two hours of my first tweet (and apparently while I was eating lunch), there came a reply with the video linked below.

For lack of a better phrase, there was a plethora of celebratory posts on Twitter.

It’s been fun to watch it bounce from account to account as people pass it along to their friends and followers. It’s been fun to observe how message move through the medium; how parts of a tweet will morph and change over time as the message moves further and further away from the originals. Structure, inclusion or exclusion of user names, and links will appear, move, or disappear from the body of the tweet. (Aside: this is a source of data that linguistic experts could study at the Library of Congress Twitter archive.) It’s really interesting to see how news of this nature evolves on a real time line.

I’ll be honest, I was grinning so hard that I had to take a moment to just let digest that there was a reply. It’s one of the strengths of the marketing campaign: providing a funny, timely response to various inquiries. Pete Bromberg sent me this link to how the Old Spice marketing team is doing all of these videos. It’s a ‘must read’ for those interested in this campaign since lays out how they find people to answer, shoot the spots, and then get them online under a very short timeline. It’s a lesson on hands off management and on the power of social media to get a group of people talking about your product.

I will say that I am finding some of the reactions to this video very odd. These are paraphrased from different sources.

  • “This won’t solve our funding/advocacy problems.”
  • “They don’t actually care about libraries, this is just part of their marketing campaign.”
  • “We are more than just books!”

I think people are reading far too much into the YouTube video. It’s a humorous spot about why libraries are great contributors to society. This was never intended to sway any politician, bureaucrat, or decision maker; but its lack of ambition does not make it without value. Enjoy it for its hilarious appeal.

The caring or lack of caring for libraries is beside the point: there is no such thing as bad publicity. Especially when, out of hundred of thousands of questions and statements looking for a video response, a wildly popular viral video marketing campaign has chosen to focus one video out of only a hundred or so shot in a day on libraries without touching on stereotypes, cheap humor, or other negatives. How exactly does this hurt the image of libraries or librarians? You have people who wouldn’t ordinarily think about the library moving from video to video and seeing what they said in response to different people. Simply put, there aren’t any tangible negatives.

In terms of the common lament for being framed as “just books”, I think that’s just a perception that is slowly dying. While the spot doesn’t mention the other offerings of libraries (e.g. internet access, audio and e-books, Hollywood and informational movies, to name a few), it portrays it as a place where ideas are exchanged through words. If anything, it’s a positive support for how the library encourages and cultivates the expression of ideas. For a thirty second spot, that’s not bad.

videohonorsAt any rate, the video managed to snag over eight thousand views and some YouTube honors. Not a bad thing at all, if I might say. It certainly got passed around library blogosphere, perhaps due to a posting on LISNews and making the front section of the Huffington Post Book Section (as pictured below).


I’ll be interested to see what the Old Spice guys will think of next. I think the biggest takeaway that this campaign embodies is that you can throw yourself out to your community and let them lead the way. Here, one advertiser said, “Hey, toss us a question and we may send you are reply.” Five million views in the course of the day later, they have a series of videos that people are talking about, sharing, and (more importantly) enjoying. There isn’t a rush or need created for people to run out and buy these products; it is the creation of goodwill and a memorable experience that will bring people back, even if the product doesn’t apply to them. No one in the library runs around yelling at people, “Are you going to borrow that or what?” or “You should be checking your email right here and right now.” It’s the creation of a friendly environment, helpful staff, the right tools and materials to meet immediate information needs, and the ability to gather resources and information for deeper or more focuses inquiries that bring people back. This is our advantage over bookstores and the internet; we aren’t interested in making someone buy anything and we can offer the human help that the web browser cannot. This is what differentiates us and creates a niche that the library institution uniquely fills.

I hope people take this video as a fun little tweak at libraries. Let’s embrace this portrayal and run with it, for it really is a humorous gift. I know for the next week or so I’ll be grinning when I say to my wife and friends.

“I’m handsome. You’re pretty. Let’s eat peanut butter. Stop throwing pigeons. Jump onto that giraffe.”

I’m grinning right now just typing it.


(As for the product itself, I have used Old Spice before these ads came out and I’ll use it again in the future. For me, the cologne reminds me of my grandfather; he used to wear it and it’s one of the strongest sensory memories of him that I have. I started to wear it after he passed away because it was comforting. My reasons for using Old Spice go a long way beyond social media, marketing people, and the viral videos that have been produced. I connect with the brand and the product at a deeper, more sentimental level. There is no ad campaign in the world that can replicate that. –Andy)

The People Business

I’ve been running the near daily #andypoll on Twitter for a couple of months now. Sometimes the questions are goofy, sometimes they are serious, and most of the time they are just random questions that pop into my head. The question I asked today elicited all sorts of answers.

You should add your own answer below.

For this particular poll, I got a ton of answers. So many, in fact, that rather than highlight a few, I compiled them into a giant picture file.

Click to embiggen

They certainly represent a broad spectrum of views and beliefs as to what makes a librarian a librarian. If I was to generalize them, they hover around customer service skills (e.g. empathy, patience, kindness, and a love of people, to name a few).

But I was curious as to what non-librarians thought would be a quality that they would look for in librarians. So I (and a few other people) asked around. Again, I compiled it into a graphic (albeit a smaller one).

Click to embiggenWhile this does not meet any sort of scientific credibility at a glance, I thought even in the few answers collected that they lined up some of the answers given by my fellow professionals on Twitter. Moreover, it was a confirmation of the personal aspect of the service; that attitude and approachability have a higher importance to non-librarian library users than other proficiencies and knowledges.

While this isn’t a Will Manley poll, it certainly something to get conversations started. What do you think is the #1 quality a librarian or library staff member should have?

The Boiling Point

Photo by ell brown (off to Italy) [Flickr]“What is your boiling point?”

For my part of the “Social Media and Advocacy” presentation that I did at ALA annual about two weeks ago, that was the question I posed to the attendees. During the train ride down on that Friday, I had decided to change my original talk. The compromise for the New Jersey state budget had just been announced earlier in the week and the implications of funding restoration lines were just being determined. The night before I left for the conference, I felt the emotional tension of months of pushing, writing, and advocating resolve itself in the course of a few hours. Having been without word of news or developments from anyone in the know, it had been a rough time wondering what was working, what didn’t, and what was left to be done.

I will say now, upon further reflection, I am disappointed that more funding was not restored. I’d like be happy about the restorations that were made and the programs that were saved but, quite frankly, I’m not. I don’t believe it was from a lack of effort. However, if the library advocacy campaign was the second most contacts that legislators received during the budget negotiations, and the library funding went from 74% to 43%, New Jersey libraries still have a very serious problem. It represents a ton of further education that will need to be accomplished to reach legislators and the general public as to the importance of library funding.

As I sat on the train as it lumbered down the track towards our nation’s capital, my original talk felt a bit short of the mark. I didn’t want people to leave the talk with a list of sites; I wanted them to leave with a fire in their belly. While the talk I gave was not as polished (and at parts, I struggled a bit to make for smoother transitions between points), I was satisfied that I was able to get my point across.

When it comes to library funding, the boiling point is the moment at which library cuts are no longer accepted and a call to action is demanded. In other words, how much tolerance do you have for library cuts? How much of a reduction of materials, services, and hours are you willing to accept on behalf of the communities that you serve? In people’s hearts, I’m sure the answer is none; but when it comes to the reality, my non-scientific observations of reactions to library funding cuts would indicate that this pushback point exists at a much higher levels (or sometimes only if the existence of the library is threatened). This is something that needs to change.

Cuts to library funding need to be seen in a different light: as an attack upon the institution and what it represents. Some might find this imagery as a bit overblown, but one cannot ignore that the denial of resources reduces the effectiveness of the library and its ability to serve its community. It is marginalizing the work by librarians and staff everyday on behalf of their patrons; it is limiting the ways in which the library can act effectively to provide materials and services to any who seek it.

This is a call to action. This is a statement that says, “Yes, you can and should resist any funding cuts.” That such resistance is productive and that you should fight for every dime for your library. It’s not simply that you are depending on it, it’s your patrons and your community that are the benefactors here. Any cut, however small, impacts the performance of the library. Librarians must become cut intolerant and continue to expand the actions and steps for securing funding in the future.

Lower your boiling point.


(While this may pose as an unreasonable position for political realities, I don’t think being reasonable under these same conditions has been serving the library community very well either. -A)