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.


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she (or he) approaches to place a hold or borrow an item and you check the card to find it's blocked for $80 in lost materials. so you get handed another card, which is also blocked... until you get to the one that is still okay, maybe the kid is still a toddler...

In any of your scenarios, I would have to block the entire family from borrowing once one family member hit that magic overdue number (whatever we set).

In almost EVERY scenario, I hear how these fines are a hardship on families. But here is my logic: we fine you ten cents a day to convince you to return your items. At some point, we want the book/CD/DVD back and if you don't return it, we will BILL you for the full amount of the item, $25.00 or more. And then send the bill to a recovery agency if you never pay. So which is worse? Ten cents a day as a gentle reminder to return that crap that you agreed to return when you applied for the card... THAT YOU AGREED TO RETURN... when you applied or no fine until we bill your account for $25 when you've had the item for 3 or 4 months and we assume you've decided to keep it?

But some people want NO FINES AT ALL, EVER. And that is completely unrealistic, based on my experience in my library.

In my library, we wouldn't be allowed to BARTER because it might violate some CODE OF ETHICS unless the group receiving the goods (blood?) was approved by the governmental body that oversees our library, to keep the library from "making deals" that might benefit some individual.

anyway, ... good thoughts...

I don't think having a 'no fines' policy is unrealistic. It might be unrealistic for *your* library, but there are libraries that use that to their advantage. Heck, it's not like smaller versions of this idea aren't used during short term fine amnesties and other promotions during which fines are eliminated.

I don't see a difference as to whether you fine someone or not; people will forget it. I'm a librarian, I have access to my own account, I'm aware of the fine structure, I collect fines from people everyday, and I forget stuff. I couldn't possibly be more embedded in the fine process. I'd rather worry about the bigger amounts (replacement costs) rather then nickel and dime stuff. And ten cents a day is not what it used to be.

I can see how bartering might be an issue (in particular since one of my Facebook friends was telling me about people in Mercedes dropping off ramen to pay off their library fines); people will game the system no matter whether we have fines, no fines, pay what you want, or in volunteering. What you can do is try to make the rules as fair as possible while minimizing loopholes.

I'm curious: Roughly what percentage of a public library's revenue is overdue fees?

In any library I've worked in/patronized, the way fines are collected is they go into the City's general fund and not a fund specifically for the library. And overall, fines are a small percentage of revenue.

fines account for less than 1% of our operating budget.

Based on my system, it's about 2% of our budget.

volunteering would be a great resource - if people were serious about it. i can see patrons taking the volunteer route thinking it would be easy and causing more work in the end through sloppy shelving/work.

i think these are all kind of silly suggestions. library fines are so small & the solution for people is simple - return your items ON TIME, or renew them if no one else has a hold on the item. this is if people even return the items at all! how are we supposed to replace un-returned/lost materials with canned foods, or with non-existant money because the fines have been eliminated?

library fines are an important source of revenue for the library. and then with these other suggestions we have to have library staff spending large amounts of time doleing out community service hours & taking care of donated food? no thanks.

So there's not going to be an issue with "replac[ing] un-returned/lost materials with canned foods, or with non-existant [sic] money because the fines have been eliminated". Not all fines are eliminated in any of these schemes, only overdue fines. Thus my earlier question: How much of your library's revenue comes from specifically overdue fines (as opposed to replacement fees, damaged materials fees, etc.)?

I would argue that fines are not an "important" source of revenue in terms of making money or turning a profit. I would argue more that they are important because they are a concrete incentive to return items.

Reading comprehension is FOR THE WIN.

You might notice a sentence in italics right before the set of suggestions.

(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)

If I was trying to make some of these suggestions work, I can imagine creating an index of local volunteer organizations looking for people. A binder, even, that could be shown to people for them to pick out what they want to do. Give them something to turn into the volunteer organization for credit; the managers or supervisors fill it out and mail it back. That's off the top of my head. How does it compare to current fine management practices involving staff counting money, recording it, account for it, preparing bank deposit tickets, managing bank statements, and spending the money within the acceptable parameters of the library? I wouldn't know, but I'm going to guess that the time investment is not disparate. (Again, something to experiment and measure.)

If the solution was so simple, so impervious to potential improvements, then there wouldn't be posts and stories about alternatives to library fines in the media or library oriented blogs.

When I was studying history in London, I took out a book and realized I had accidentally put it in my bag after I got home. It stayed there over the weekend.

The library was fining me hourly. When I finally made it back to the reference desk, the Librarian manning the reference desk looked at me sternly. "That'll be Thirty Pounds."

I asked her what happens if I don't pay it.

"Then you can NEVER take anything out from this library UNTIL YOU DO."

I laughed. "Yeah, I'm not paying that. Here's your book, though."

I read in the library for the last week of the term. I then flew home, and left the country. Somewhere, in the library records, my name remains, with that Thirty Pounds ( at that time,more than SIXTY DOLLARS) accruing interest.

So, you leave town without settling an account. And that's supposed to be a good example or contribute to this discussion in what way? The lack of leniency of the librarian or the library's policy?

At least you did return the book before skipping town. That's considerate.

Their point is that they never paid off the fine and gamed the system by reading in the library. Sure, the material was returned, but they never borrowed anything from the library again.

Fines are not worth it to us. Especially when you consider just how much extra staff time is spent on them. We don't have them. And it truly isn't abused.

We do bill quite promptly for replacement. That really has more of an effect on people.

How long does an item have to be out before you send a bill? Does it matter whether it is new or not for that time frame?

My library currently charges overdue fines. But we also incorporate a "fine amnesty" period, usually an entire month, in which no fines are charged for anything other than lost/damaged items. We often get people wanting to pay their fines anyway, so we encourage those people to make donations to our Friends organization.

We've also done the canned food instead of fines, in conjunction with our local food bank close to the holiday season. It does help the community tremendously, and with the proper planning, logistics of where to collect and store the food is not a problem.

The volunteering work in the library, in my experience training volunteers/people sentenced to community service, doesn't work. There is a lot of staff time involved in ensuring a volunteer is capable of shelf-reading/shelving properly. And the potential for misshelved or missing items is too great.

As for the other quid pro quos, it's unethical for the library to solicit letters of support. In a recent election, the library would have benefited from a renewal of a sales tax, but as City employees we could only give our patrons the basic information about the sales tax (the percentage breakdown of where the money would be distributed). The thought of bartering for blood makes me squeamish. Also, for those with medical issues and can't give blood, it's exclusionary (in a totally different way than the financial burden of fines--the blood is way more personal than money). I like the thought of completing a survey about library programming or something of that nature.

Interesting Topic.

Volunteering would be problematic for the last 3 places I worked (including current place of work) because all volunteers must undergo a background check and no city department will use volunteers that have certain criminal offenses in their background (the library is the most restrictive). In addition, it would cost a lot to do this for everyone that had fines.

In general, my experience is that fines are expected. At the last two places I worked the library surveyed the population of the city (including non-users) and the responses were overwhelmingly in favor of both having overdue fines and having those fines apply to children. So... before implementing anything I would say ask your patrons!

This was an unexpected response! You make a good point in putting it the financial fate of wayward patrons into the community. A good way to let everyone decide on the form of punishment.

That's the way my two previous employers handled the vast majority of policy decisions (not just fines) - semi-annual public surveys sent out in paper and electronic form with the municipal water or power bill. Sometimes the surveys asked about new policies and some revisited old decisions.

I always thought it made sense. It's their library after all - not ours - and they most definitely had opinions on what we should be doing with their money.

So many of these ideas take more staff time that it's costing the library more to waive it than if they just waived it - I call it spending a quarter to collect a nickel....we are 100% busier than we were in 2001 and we have no more staff than we did then...I wouldn't want the staff spending time on this (volunteers need some sort of supervision) when they could be doing something more productive - like connecting patrons with books and information!!

While it would still involve some staff time and effort to actually waive or credit patron accounts, it is possible to involve your library's Friends organization for the actually collecting, sorting, and moving of the canned goods, as well as your local food bank may have someone able to come collect donations. Also, you can set up a system, for example, of 1 can = up to 1 dollar in fines. So, to cover a 55 cent fine, you give 1 can. A 1.15 fine requires 2 cans and so on.

The food-for-fines is a great community outreach program that will most likely benefit many of your library patrons. My library does this once a year, and we are also a Toys for Tots drop-off location during the holidays. If you coordinate and plan accordingly, the outside organizations involved will make the effort to collect materials so you don't have to struggle with storage issues. We also have literacy-related outreach programs year-round to local daycares, HeadStart and Pre-k programs, and senior citizen centers. Those programs allow a rotating selection of library books to be delivered to those facilities. All of these outreach programs, while requiring staff time and effort, actually require less effort than the cumulative effort and time involved in collecting fines, sending overdue notices, making phone calls, or taking it to collection agencies or the courts.

If you already have volunteers, or Friends members (some of our Friends members are former staff), that are trained for some light library duties, they can supervise the community service volunteers. It all depends upon what you already have in place or what would be easy to implement.

The city of Brisbane in Australia is going to waive more than $1.4 million in fines in exchange for canned goods.

I didn't address fine waiving. It's a good viable companion option to most of these suggestions. (e.g. volunteering for those who have the option, waiving for those who don't.) It certainly enters a judgment call at the staff level for this, something a strict policy might have trouble with. I'm lucky in that my system is rather lenient when it comes to waiving, putting the staff member in charge of making the call. (Although, we only allow waiving of fines for one time only; no lost books or collection fees are included.)

(Edit: This is meant to be a response to the poster above.)

First, I'm sure everyone whose worked in a library probaly knows fines are waive all the time for many different reasons. A smart patron who isn't afraid to lie chould very easily get away with out paying most fines. (Patrons are always claiming something was returned before the computer says it was or when the computer says it wasn't returned at all). Libraries (at least the ones I've worked at) will do a waive of fines for hardship reasons, though only once. I've also known a person who just didn't want to deal with patrons complaining about fines and just waive them all (usaully without even telling the patron).

To really work without fines you'd have to have a very small limit on the number of checkouts (like 5 or 10 per card), eliminate indiviual cards for children (to prevent "Multiple Card Mama" patrons) and have the card fully block when anything becomes overdue. That way the incentive to return materials is to checkout more items. Though in my mind without overdue fines having due dates and calling something the overdue loses meaning.

Another problem with "Multiple Card Mama" is what happens when the children with huge (they're always huge) fines on their cards get older and can't use the library because of fines incured in their names by their parents. (I know most libraries will probably waive those fines, but it can add problems for the patron and the library).

In Northern Virginia, most counties receive up to $300,000.00 per year in overdue library fines ($0.10 per day per item; $5.00 max per item returned). The arrangement with each county usually is that the county pays for all the machines needed for collecting fines, but after the initial payback to the county for the machines and maintenance, the funds go toward the libraries.

Past history also shows that after fines are imposed, some circulation is quickly reduced in response, but book circulation is usually restored and then exceeded in a few years as patrons become used to the idea, and soon forget they were ever fine-free.

In this time of reduced budgets, and with library staff being laid off and library hours and services cut, it is irresponsible for libraries not to do their part. If the politicians see that the library is doing nothing to help with reduced county income, then they are more likely to be budget cut until they are more cooperative.

Nobody likes fines. Nobody likes closed libraries, either. If fines and politician approval help with library budgets, then the equation must be resolved. This is not nice; this is extortion; this is realpolitik at the local level.

Even if there was zero income after expenses, to refuse to impose fines indicates to non-librarians, such as the public and politicians, that libraries refuse to live in the real world.

When I was in high school (back during the Age of Dinosaurs), a student did not have to pay to park their car; play a sport; join a club; play in the band; rent a locker. Now, each JR and HS student is nibbled to death by costs and fines, in order to reduce the money needed to run the county school budgets. You can refuse to pay the fines, and then do without any extra-curricular activities. And the same applies to county libraries.

Welcome to modern times- reduced taxes, reduced tax base and Tea Party initiatives.

R. Lee Hadden (These are my own opinions!)

My library is looking at going to no fines. At first, I thought the person that proposed it was crazy. Then I started reading. Here's what I think now:

Know your patrons
Polling the public is a good start to knowing if your library should or should not invest time in administering fines or having a no fines policy. That survey should also include questions about alternative fining options, such as those listed above so that patrons can understand the alternatives to fines.

Disadvantages of fines
My favourite movie store does not charge fines if I am a day or two late returning my movies. The no fines created good will, I like them, their customer service is great. I rent from them a lot. I drive out of my way to go to this movie store, and I recommend them. I know that I want our patrons to feel and act in all these positive ways towards our library. A point for no fines.

People do avoid the library when they have fines, even some librarians (admit it)! We can sympathize with our patrons. There are numerous reasons why you can't pay a fine, maybe your kid emptied your wallet, or you left your wallet in the car/at home, its not pay day yet, or you're someone who really can't afford it, etc. I don't want people avoiding the library.

Who does it effect?
It's your tax dollars and someone is affecting your return on your investment by not following library policies. This could be the reason why the libraries that did mention having polled their patrons had so many patrons in favour of fines (even if those patrons had fines themselves). Should you only be expecting a return of value based on how much in tax dollars you put in? If you lose $500 worth of books, more than you pay in taxes, should you now expect the same return on your tax dollars as someone who hasn't accrued these fines? That's a loss of $500 to a library collection.

We should all expect the same service with no discrimination, even based on fines. Public libraries are for the public. People expect our services to be free. Fines involve me giving more money to the library and I already pay taxes. Do fines create a roadblock to literacy for some? Why not charge for the book but no fines? All valid arguments.

So where can we possibly stand?

I think amnesty periods to bring back patrons that have been avoiding or left libraries completely is a positive idea. Circulation staff should be able to waive fines because not everyone can afford it, or when "it was an honest mistake". Based on what I have read most libraries that have or have not instituted fines have done and recommend doing so because it suits their library, community and local government.

Who says you can't try it out in small ways. Blockbuster changed back their fines policy, so why can't libraries test out a new fine policy too? We can always go back. We are learning what works and doesn't from those libraries testing it out. So thanks to them!

Anyone know of any recent research on this topic?

I think that going with no fines is not really going to help libraries get materials back, and if we do something like blockbuster it might even make it worse. The blockbuster policy was that after 2 weeks the item was considered lost and you had to pay full price for it. They would just charge your card (the one they required for you to setup an account) and boom you are out $40. Materials is what libraries are about, and constantly having to replace those materials can get too expensive for most of us to handle. Does this mean that the responsible patron deserves to have less because others cannot be responsible?
Fines are an evil, but without a penalty will we ever be able to get those items back?
Reasonable fine limits, say $5 for hardcovers and $2.50 for paperbacks, and a 3-6 month limit would give patrons sufficient time to return materials. The responsibility of returning materials in a timely manner and the consequences of not doing so has to fall to the patron who signed an agreement to do so.