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.

31 thoughts on “The Library Reloaded: Fines

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  2. The money raised from fines is not insignificant. So, if access is the issue, I think it just increases the problem; richer libraries that do not “need” the money from fines will find alternate ways. Poorer libraries that do need the money are now on the short end of the stick in more ways: the “other” library doesn’t charge fines plus people accusing them of blocking access.

    I hate fines. No, really. I wish there were an alternative — I like the idea of “no fines until someone else places a hold,” except from being on the public service desk of multiple libraries, that won’t work. Many people won’t place holds and will say “oh, I’ll come back when it’s returned.” They will be waiting forever. And in public libraries, people still browse, so items out mean that people don’t have access to those items to browse. I think technology can help (displays via large screen tvs so not relying on the item being on the shelf) as well as helping patrons be more willing to place holds.

    I cannot get behind the volunteer idea. Volunteers is a huge time & money commitment; a library will need to hire someone just to train & manage it (so that is a cost) and then find something for people to do, preferably that actually helps the library, as opposed to busy work that no one respects (so isn’t done well & isn’t taken seriously).

    So no fines — great in theory. But we still need to figure out how that can be implemented that doesn’t harm the library (re lost money) or negatively impact the patrons (less books etc) to read because they aren’t being returned).

    • I don’t think it’s a pure ‘rich library vs poor library’ question; the articles for the food donation and the elimination of fines give the impression of not being large or well off libraries. It’s a calculated financial risk.

      • My concern is that you may be asking for food donation from the same person who relies on those donations to make it thru the week. Re elimintation of fines: I’m basing this on people who say their library relies on those fines for their library, period. Given the various ways that libraries are funded, it can vary (localization!) as to who can or cannot afford it. Usually, the have-nots continue to have not.

        • I wouldn’t want a food donation from someone who is relying on it to live, no. This is why I like waiving fines for that segment of the population.

  3. In my hometown back in Michigan, overdue books and fines pretty much meant the end of your library use until the book was returned and the fine paid in full. I don’t believe there were any alternatives for paying down your fines, either. Where I live currently, I believe I can still check out books even with one overdue, and I definitely can even with fines on my account – the only limit seems to be that once I reach $15 in fines, I can’t renew my books any longer. Kids also have the option of reading down their fines. Guess which community is lower income?

    Because I know that my library’s funding is precarious, and I actually have some discretionary income now, I don’t mind paying actual money for my fines – and really like the idea of using the time to solicit a donation for the library. I can definitely see myself rounding up my fines and donating the difference. I don’t have enough extra money to cut the library a check at the end of the year, but several small donations throughout the year would definitely be feasible.

    For those who don’t have the extra cash, I like the alternatives, and wish my library had such alternatives for adults (for I *haven’t* always had extra cash for my library fines). The most practical are probably the ones that give directly back to the library, such as volunteering time, though I would definitely do a blood drive at the library whether I had fines at the moment or not!

  4. At one library I worked at, I pushed hard for a fine forgiveness program for kids. The kids were able to “read off” their fines—if they read for 30 minutes in view of a librarian, they were forgiven a dollar of fines.

    It’s important to make concessions so people can continue to be library users. I’m pretty enamored of the “pay what you can” model; I think in a majority of communities, the number of people who would pay more than needed would balance the number of people who couldn’t pay what was asked.

    And most people want to pay. Most people want to be in good standing with the services they use. But a lot of people are struggling. When you have to choose between library fines and the gas bill, you’re going to pay the gas bill.

    I wrote about this on my own blog pretty extensively. It’s a privilege to be able to make enough money that $5 in late fees doesn’t matter. But sometimes, that $5 can either pay late fees, or put enough gas in your car for you to get to work and back. There have always been people like this, and the current economy has only increased their numbers. And who needs the library more than they?

  5. We do not charge late fees in our Pk-1 school library. Students are on a fixed schedule and cannot check out a book at the next period if the previous book was not returned. I, also, often negotiate fines for lost and damages items for “extenuating” circumstances. At the end of every year there are about 12 books that are not returned or payed for. Our school has over 600 students.

    I realize that we have more control than a public library does. But not having to deal with lost nickles and dimes for so many little ones is a very good thing! Also, at this age level, not being able to choose a book is the best motivator.

  6. I have been playing around with the idea of offering credit for early returns in the form of points. One point per day of early return. Points can be traded for fines at a penny per point. Also, could use points for discounts on library schwag or towards friends membership. If you maintain certain point balances, you get rewards. We used a trial version of early return with our DVD collection and people took to it quickly, wanting to find out how they were doing. If we are going to balance fines, which I see as a stick for returns, why not work on creating a carrot, and rewarding those who use the system effectively? Sure there will be people who want to game the system, but we are arguing with them already. At the very least, it gives us a data point that is anonymous and reflects their behavior in using the library.

      • OK, did some digging. We ran the DVD early return experiment from Dec 2009 to May 2010. Participation ran 25-63-97-53-61 (no data for May). Overall circ stats for DVD collection were 2266-2083-1914-2235-2030 (left off May data). We average 3.5 DVD per checkout so to compare them cleanly (we only counted valid early return slips) 25/(2266/3.5) gives us a 3.8% participation rate for the first month – 10.5% – 17.7% – 8.3% – 10.5%. In addition, all DVD circs were down over the same period last year. We entered all the people who participated in a raffle style giveaway. The aim here was more to try and boost drooping DVD circ rather than create a credit system, but we were thinking about the credit system when we did it. Low participation, no noticeable effect on circ and no current way of automating the reward system means that we have shelved the plan for implementation. Ability to automatically generate credit from the ILS transactions is a key component to making it work.
        Some of the anecdotal evidence that it was at least working for the people that had an interest was that we kept the slips in a transparent jar at the ref desk so people could see what their odds were like. There is also the potential to create a conversation with people when introducing the rewards system. I think the best system would be a passive one that simply triggered events that we would then be able to relate; “You have an overdue fine but since you have been so good about returning books in the past, you have enough credit to waive that fine. Thank you for using the library.”

        • I love that story. It’s great! Nothing like being able to reward someone for their good behavior as opposed to only punishing for bad behavior.

  7. The are studies that show increasing fines lower circulation and that fines in and of themselves do not ensure that items are returned. Fines are often a barrier to use for those who need us most – lower income families and especially children.

  8. Hi there!

    I’m fully in favor of the no fines model. You can have the books out forever until someone else requests it. But I think that’s just my hippie, free-love, sharing-is-caring, information wants to be free, and-we-all-shine-on, goo-goo-gajoob-ness talking. I’ve been in libraries where the late fees were like 10 cents per day. So if I have a book out for a MONTH, it means I owe the library … OMG THREE DOLLARS!!

    Do libraries really get that much revenue from late fees? I mean yeah, I guess three dollars here and three dollars there adds up, but that doesn’t seem like a lot to me. [shrug]

    So for me, not having fines at all would work. I do like the idea of having kids “read” away their fines, though. 🙂

    • The amount generated depends on the library. For my system, it represents hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not an insignificant sum, considering that we have a lenient fine waiving policy. (Lenient as it is left in the hands of staff members as a painless process, that is.)

      • Wow! That much? I had no idea! I would have been surprised if it was even ONE thousand, never mind hundreds of thousands. :O

  9. We do not assess fines at our K-6 library for items not returned on time. We take their privilege of checking items out away until the item(s) come back. We also barter if they want to, allow the patrons to volunteer, and offer the option of paying what they can for lost and damaged items.

    I find this system works well for our small school library.

  10. We dropped the typical overdue fines on most of our circulating books after discovering the revenue didn’t actually come back to the library and it cost us a lot of staff time to do the billing. We now generate emails when materials are due, followed by reminder emails, and after a suitably long period where they neither renew nor return the item we send them a bill for the replacement cost. That usually gets them in pretty quick. If they bring the book back, the replacement bill is waived. People can renew indefinitely so long as nobody else has requested the item.

    The one exception where we still have fines is for class reserve materials (academic library). Even so, for most textbooks a $10/hr fine is less than the cost of buying the book, and the day before finals, students sometimes would prefer to pay the fine rather than share with their classmates.

  11. Community service is a two-edged sword. We get tons of community service in our library, because it is required for the high schools, required for National Honor Society, and an option instead of paying fines for things like DWI, being a minor in possession, and too many parking tickets.

    Some are tickled to be working in a library instead of paying hundreds of dollars or picking up trash from the road. They work their butts off, do great work, and even come back after they have done their time to work in the library. They make us hunger for more volunteers every day!

    Others do things like show up unannounced demanding to work a few hours off their obligation because “today is good for my schedule”. Does not seem to matter that there is nothing fitting their capabilities to do right now–their service is due soon, or they are going on a trip, or whatever, so the librarian gets to either stop what she is doing to try to make work for them, or stand there while they continue to block the desk arguing that work needs to be produced for them now (our volunteer coordinator spends a lot of time offsite, so she may not be around). The number of seemingly educated people who need to sing the ABC song in order to shelve fiction books correctly is quite high, and getting them pay attention to the numbers after Dewey’s decimal can be challenging. They make us think Save Us from More Volunteers.

    • True story: I had someone who on their own “fixed” the ABC order for a section of the library.

      You guessed it…it was a Dewey area of nonfiction, and the entire thing had to be redone.

  12. This is timely. Just today a patron came in, waving her tax bill around and pointing out how much she spends on the library every year, and in light of that, why should she have to pay her $1.10 fine?! While she was pretty rude about the whole thing, I couldn’t help but think that she kinda had a point. At the same time, these are books that are in demand (she wanted them – who’s to say someone else might not want them too), that the library purchased for the community at large. I really am intrigued by the points/credit idea. I’d also like to see longer checkout periods for items that aren’t new. If you can renew a three-week book twice, why don’t we just check it out for nine weeks to begin with? I think I remember hearing about a library that asked people how long they needed the book and checked out for that time period. Fast readers might opt for a week, while others might need a book for several months. Interesting ideas.

  13. I like most of these ideas. I think each would work for different types of libraries. I work for a government library, and we use method #1, letting them keep it until someone else needs it. Since people most often look for books via the catalog, it works well.

    I love the “reading it off” idea, especially for school libraries. I’d have taken to that like a duck to water!

    “Pay what you want” seems to me to have real potential for public libraries, provided the income from the system is pooled for the system as a whole (as opposed to branch-by-branch).

    Back in 1990, I was an elementary school librarian. No one had ever allowed the kindergarteners to check out books, but I let them have one at a time, keeping them at school for the first semester, and allowing them to take them home second semester. We had a fine system (five cents/day, I think), but what really brought the kindergarteners’ books back was peer pressure! When someone kept a book late, the kids who were waiting to read it directed such disapproval at the offender that it was generally returned the next day. Now, if we could just figure out how to transfer this to other libraries….

    Caryn Wesner-Early

  14. I hate the whole nickel and dime aspect of fines. I think having to tell someone at the circulation desk that they owe us a petty amount of money because they returned a few things a few days late diminishes us. It taints the positive interaction we are working hard to have. That said, I think it works for us (at least at MPOW) politically to charge fines. It means we have some sort of revenue coming in. To destroy that in these tough economic times would not sit well with the politicians who approve our budget each year.
    I would like to try a model where people could pre-pay say $20 for fines/fees, and the amount would just be deducted. It would be great if they could use this fund for printouts, too. We could just let people know when their amount is running low. I think this would do wonders to improve our public image. But I’ll bet our Accounting department would hate it!

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  17. Great discussion! We went to a no-fines model in 2007 and it has worked well in some regards. We no longer spend staff time & energy arguing with the same people about the $0.30 they owe because they didn’t get the book back on time (which, of course, is the answer to the woman who wants to know why she has to pay fines on top of her taxes… you never have to pay a fine if you just return your items on time). We still have to put staff time into getting items back though — without fines there are people who just don’t think about returning items, whether there are others waiting or not, so we make phone calls and send letters to chase things down.

    I love the “point system” idea — always feels nicer to reward/encourage good behavior than to punish. It’s hard to imagine the logistics of logging early returns at check-in though. I’d love to hear more about how that works.

    Mostly, I wanted to comment on the “loss of revenues” argument. That came up when we were deciding whether to stop charging fines. Since the idea of fines is as a deterrent (there to give people the incentive to return things on time), theoretically if everyone follows the rules then your revenue from fines would be $0 anyway. If the library needs a money maker then I think we should create one – either a fundraising campaign, or a library store, or whatever. It’s like state governments raising taxes on cigarettes and justifying it by saying that they are trying to reduce smoking & the health effects of smoking… when we really know they are using it to make up for other shortfalls.

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