Things I Never Learned in Library School: Should libraries charge fines?
Recently, there have been discussions on various platforms regarding whether or not libraries should charge fines. I know that they discussed this recently on Storytime Underground. In fact, I sent this post to my mentor who is in an administrative position, which resulted in an interesting discussion.
Let me start by saying that I have often advocated against fines. My main reasoning behind this is that teens are often the patrons who become blocked by fines, which puts them in a really difficult position. Younger teens can’t drive, so it can be difficult for them to get to and from the library to return their books in a timely manner. And if they accrue fines, they are dependent on their parents or guardians to pay off these fines – which they often can’t or won’t. So now a teen who wants and needs to check out materials can’t.
The simple answer is, don’t charge fines. If you get past the long standing tradition of charging fines, it makes sense. Fines become a stumbling block to access so if we want to increase access, we should eliminate fines.
One of the main rationales behind fines is that it encourages patrons to return materials on time, or on timish. We want materials returned on time for several reasons. One, many times there are more patrons waiting in line for that book. And I know we tend to say we don’t want books sitting on the shelves, but the truth is that sometimes we do; many patrons find new and interesting materials to read that they never would have thought to look for through the act of browsing. A book can’t be discovered through browsing if it is never returned and doesn’t occasionally sit on a shelf.
We’ve all had those patrons who check out a book and keep it for months, creating for themselves a kind of personal library stocked with long overdue library books. This is one of the reasons that my mentor gave for the importance of library fines. We’re not in the business of using public tax dollars to support people’s personal library collections. So in another way, fines can also be about access, because when we get those materials back on the shelves in a timely manner, it improves access for the rest of our population. Our patrons don’t have access to long overdue books sitting in the personal collections of one patron.
Another reason to consider fines appeared in the Columbus Dispatch. You see, the Delaware County District Library in Ohio does not charge fines, a model I have often served up as an example of my see we shouldn’t charge fines argument. But not everyone is comfortable with not charging fines, and some library administrators indicated that it would mean giving up a significant portion of revenue. In Ohio, public libraries actively work to promote the benefits of libraries to the public and to state legislatures. Fines have always served as an example of libraries being fiscally responsible to the public. Why, many people argue, should we give libraries more money when they are walking back from one type of revenue resource, fines. Although if you pay much attention to your library financials, fines most likely don’t make up a very big percentage of your overall income or budget. But there is that perception that we are asking for more money from tax payers and legislators at the same time that we are discarding a potential income stream. It’s like asking for a loan from a bank after you just announced that you quit your job. And if you’ve paid any attention to the political scene here in the United States, you know that we don’t like to give money to people who we perceive aren’t doing anything to try and make it on their own. So this one is more about perception than it is truth. We know that not much income revenue is generated by fines, by the public sees abandoning fines as a dereliction of financial responsibility on our part.
So now we have to create this balance between creating policies that maintain and encourage access for individual patrons but also communicate to the public that we are being responsible with their financial investment. And make no mistake, as a tax funded entity each and every citizen has a financial investment in their local library.
Another potential solution is not to charge youth fines. This can be easier said then done because it involves the need to set up two different sets of borrowing privileges in your ILS. It also doesn’t solve the problem of adult patrons who don’t get their materials back on time and it’s important that we understand there are a lot of reasons this could happen. For example, I work in a rural community that has a high poverty rate. This means that many patrons don’t have reliable transportation and many rural communities don’t have good public transportation. So fines would disproportionately punish poorer populations, the very populations who most often need access to our materials and services.
Many libraries get around the idea of fines impeding access by allowing patrons to check out materials or sign onto public computers as long as their fines don’t go over a certain amount. In some libraries that amount can be as high as $50.00, but I have seen it be as low as $5.00. This means that if your fines go over $5.00, patrons can’t check anything out or sign onto a computer. To some people $5.00 is nothing, but to many people $5.00 is everything. It’s a meal that they will have to give up, bus fare to work, and more.
So I’ve been wrestling with this idea of fines. I have heard the concerns of administrators. I have read the concerns of library users and tax voters in the comments of online articles. I have thought about how they impact my patrons and how they can impede access. And I still come out of this debate here: in an ideal world, we shouldn’t charge fines. Yes, there will always be those patrons who abuse the system, but the truth is there are those patrons who abuse the system while we do charge fines. And yes, I can hear the concerns of voters and legislators and concede their points. But what I can’t get past is the teen that stands before me at the reference desk who just needs to check out a copy of The Outsiders because they have to read it for school and the closest book store is over an hour away and they don’t have Internet access at home or a credit card to buy the book online. Now our policy of fines are preventing a teen who just wants to graduate from being successful and this will have far reaching implications way past the $45.00 fines that sits on their card because they couldn’t get a parent to bring them back to the library in a timely manner that one time when they were 8. So I will keep advocating that libraries reconsider their position on fines.
What are your thoughts?
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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