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.