by Kristen Jaques, former Head Editor, INALJ Maine
previously published 5/8/13
Fines and Forgiveness
The handling of overdue charges is a point of contention among many libraries and librarians. Because of our profession’s lack of consensus on this issue, and because different libraries have different needs and serve different populations, I have experienced a wide range of policies at several of the libraries, both public and academic, where I have worked or been a patron. Some libraries could charge high overdue fines and block accounts that weren’t being properly managed by patrons, some libraries kept fines low to nudge people to be responsible while giving them some leeway, and some libraries charged no overdue fines at all.
The librarians I’ve worked with are all fair and balanced in their practices, and able to empathize with and accommodate patrons on a case by case basis. During meetings or while chatting with other professionals, however, we reveal strong, contrasting opinions on what we should be doing about overdue materials and how to handle fines. Some argue that all patrons accept responsibility for following the rules when they sign up for library cards, and libraries should be able to charge delinquent borrowers fees to encourage them to return the books on time. They maintain that if libraries don’t penalize patrons who frequently return materials very late, they are letting people who abuse the system walk all over the library, to the detriment of the library’s integrity and those patrons who usually return books on time. Others argue that by charging overdue fees, libraries bar some disadvantaged individuals and families from being able to use the library. They say that the library has no place moralizing via well-meaning but misguided attempts to teach responsibility or build character; we are in this business to serve the public, and should give struggling patrons a break.
Recently, Library Journal’s Annoyed Librarian responded in annoyance to a New York Times blog article about the Queens Borough Public Library’s “Read Down Your Fees” Program, which offers children and young adults the chance to have $1.00 removed for every half hour spent reading at the library. Annoyed Librarian charged that the program amounted to “indentured servitude,” unfairly penalizing kids from low income families whose parents couldn’t just give them the money, and that it was showing poor kids that “as long as you don’t have money even the public library will find ways to keep you down.” Many commenters agreed, some chiming in that children should never be charged fines, because children fall under their parents’ responsibility, while others argued that it was a voluntary program, and that all patrons should take responsibility for books they borrow.
When I read about this program, it seemed like a reasonable way to offer patrons both forgiveness and the chance to demonstrate responsibility and goodwill. Maybe because I was reading about it online, I was only seeing reactions from the most opinionated in our profession, but I was surprised that this program didn’t receive more “bipartisan” support among circulation librarians with both “enabling” and “enforcing” conflict management styles. Maybe the problem was that the program could have been better targeted toward (or at least included) adult patrons, as it makes more sense to hold them accountable for not returning their books within the loan period stipulated. They would probably rather sit down and read for awhile than wash windows, the other alternative to paying fines that we jokingly offer patrons at the public library where I currently work.
I think librarians disagree about fines largely because of personality differences. We all have different relationships to rules. While some librarians are sticklers who suffer from a full-fledged crisis of identity any time they return a book late, other members of our profession harbor the dark secret that they themselves would be in a world of trouble if they couldn’t override their own fees and renewal limits. Since I myself am a library patron with more than a few human failings, and tend to check out more books than I can read in a reasonable amount of time, I can certainly empathize with those people who just can’t make time management happen. Yet as a librarian, I am also a brave servant of the public, and I sometimes find myself in the line of fire when a wait list forms of eager patrons who want to borrow a book that one of their fellow townspeople has absconded with for months on end.
I am lucky to work at a library with a designated weekday on which patrons can return their late items and have their fees forgiven, regardless of the fine amount. Offering forgiveness so frequently shifts the burden on both the library and patrons. We are able to bribe a lot of long-lost patrons into bringing extremely overdue items back as soon as possible, and earn good standing with the library again. We are also able to reward patrons who come to the library very regularly, and only accumulate a few cents’ worth of fines here and there. The downside is that patrons will occasionally delay returning items because they know they can bring it in on that day and have the fines forgiven, but from what I can see, offering fine forgiveness day creates a steady flow of patrons checking items in and out, and makes them feel welcome and encouraged to return to the library. Since we provide patrons with a weekly opportunity to start anew, we do charge fines for materials returned on other days of the week. The money helps the library, and the library still maintains a policy that holds patrons responsible. I am often willing to forgive or override fines, or allow patrons to pay in installments, if the patron has a plausible reason, is genuinely apologetic, and has a well thought out plan for paying it back. I do this because I like having patrons of all varieties come to the library, even those patrons find themselves on the wrong side of the library lending limit law, and need our help getting back on track. While patrons should elect to be responsible library users, and libraries should be able to enforce the rules, we should be doing everything we can do to ensure that everyone is able to use the library.