No more library police?
December 31, 2017 4:10 PM   Subscribe

This October, the New York Public Library, along with the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library, forgave the overdue fines of all patrons under age 18 as a one-time amnesty. One month after the amnesty, at least 11,000 kids who had not used the library for at least a year had come back to the library. Now, NYPL chief Tony Marx is proposing to go further: eliminate overdue fines altogether.

If NYPL takes that step, they would not be the first library to do so, and whether to charge overdue fines has been topic of much recent discussion.

  • Tony Marx: The case against library fines—according to the head of The New York Public Library:
    While relatively small library fines have been a punchline in pop culture over the years (Jerry Seinfeld’s “library cop” is an icon, for example), the fact is that for many families across the US, library fines are a true barrier to access. ... I understand there are some who will balk at this experiment, wondering if the elimination of fines poses a “moral hazard”? To be clear, I’m not advocating a system with zero accountability. Patrons would need to return their items before checking out new ones, and still pay for lost items. I’m advocating a system in which a family does not need to choose between dinner and using the public library.
  • Rafil Kroll-Zaidi: What’s Scarier: Library Fines or Turning into a Scarecrow?
  • Claire Fallon: Libraries Are Dropping Overdue Fines — But Can They Afford To?
    In times when government funding for libraries dwindles, some argue that libraries can succumb to the temptation to depend on fines, along with fees for library services, to supplement their operating costs. At most libraries, the proceeds are reinvested in the library in some form, though sometimes the money is allocated to the city’s general fund. Fines and fees are dwarfed by a public library’s overall budget, however ― according to Library Journal, fines often make up less than one percent of funding, and enforcing fines itself requires funding.
  • Ruth Graham: Long Overdue: Why public libraries are finally eliminating the late-return fine.
    In the summer of 2015, the 13 libraries of the High Plains Library District in northern Colorado decided to eliminate almost all their late fines. The district has now had about 18 months to assess what it means to survive only on fines from DVDs and lost-material fees. Naturally, revenue from fines and fees dropped, from about $180,000 in 2014 to an estimated $95,000 last year. But the system also got rid of most of its expensive credit-card machines and stopped leasing a change-counting machine that it had needed to process the avalanche of dimes and quarters. Executive director Janine Reid says the overall financial impact has been neutral. Meanwhile, circulation rose, including a 16 percent rise within the children’s department. Staff members are happy, because they no longer spend time locked in awkward exchanges with patrons who are angry, distraught, or indignant about their overdue fines. And the fear that fines were the only thing between civilization and chaos has proved unfounded: 95 percent of materials are returned within a week of their due date.
  • Howard Blume: No more library fines for most young readers in L.A. County
    Even fines of 15 cents a day per book can push children away. “When charges accrue on a young person’s account, generally, they don’t pay the charges and they don’t use the card,” Hastings said. “A few dollars on their accounts means they stop using library services.”
  • Emily K. Coleman: No more fines for overdue books in 2018 at Waukegan Public Library
    The Waukegan Public Library is eliminating daily fines for most overdue materials because officials say they don't help get books returned on time and instead create a financial burden that prevents people from using the library. The move, which will kick off Monday with the new year, also comes with a clean slate for any library users who have accrued daily fines, spokeswoman Amanda Civitello said.
  • Jennifer A. Dixon and Steven A. Gillis: Doing Fine(s)? | Fines & Fees
    The results of the LJ survey provide a picture of the ways in which libraries nationwide assess and adjust their approaches to fines and fees in order best to serve their patrons. The clearest trend from these results is that libraries benefit from open-mindedness about these revenue sources and a willingness to move away from entrenched traditional methods. There is a cost, in staff time and effort particularly, to collecting fines and fees from patrons, and libraries must balance this by collecting in a way that makes sense for the individual library and community.
  • Beth O'Brien: Library Late Fees Are Not Helping Anyone
    I work in a library in a low income community. The people that come in don’t often have another way to access the services or materials we provide. They also have health issues, and transportation issues, and live complicated lives. This can make always returning things on time near impossible. If their account gets blocked, there’s not a lot they can do about it. Late fees are a huge barrier for this population. You could shake your finger at them and say, “Just bring your items back on time!” but that’s not going to help. It won’t change how they do things, and it doesn’t leave them with a good impression of the library. We want people to use our services. Don’t we? So why are we stopping them?
posted by metaquarry (60 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't used our public library since 1998.

That book is still on my shelf.
posted by sirshannon at 4:20 PM on December 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

I paid a crapload of library fines as a child -- and my mother generally made me pay them myself from my allowance, since remembering which of my books needed to go back was my responsibility. But I was fortunate enough that it was never a real barrier for me. Sometimes we even checked books out knowing they would not go back on time because we were taking them on vacation. But at the time, you could only renew by phone, and overdue fines were cheaper than long distance phone calls.

I know I'm fortunate to have never been in a position where I (or my family) couldn't pay the fines, so we never lost that precious library access. I'm glad that more libraries are moving to a system where no one faces that choice.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:22 PM on December 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

I definitely lost library access as a kid due to fine or lost books, it's hard to know which. But I knew I couldn't go back because money.

I'm glad that things are changing, because I was one of those kids.

Basically changing schools or moving is what gave me access to a library when things aren't all connected to each other (and getting older to be able to responsibly handle books helped too!)
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:28 PM on December 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

As a kid, I once checked out a library book for a school project. I then forgot I had done so (I checked out a LOT of library books), and promptly lost it at some point. Luckily the librarian on duty at the time gave me a stern-yet-kind talking to and waived the lost-book fee, the $25 of which seemed totally, massively prohibitive to young me, and probably would have turned me off of the library for good.

I not only continued to be a library regular, but actually wound up working an unpaid summer internship in high school with the NYPL (where, to be crass and capitalist, they wound up making way more than that twenty-five bucks in free labor anyway).

In conclusion, hell yeah, get rid of fines.
posted by Itaxpica at 4:35 PM on December 31, 2017 [12 favorites]

I’m happy to hear this. Library fines hurt those who need access to libraries the most. Plus, libraries are not dependent on fines for funding operations.

One exception: university faculty. They never return their books. They can keep their fines. 😉
posted by johnxlibris at 4:35 PM on December 31, 2017 [23 favorites]

We no longer charge most fines at the library I work at. We assess fees for replacement of missing materials but usually waive that after talking to the patron. Hey, we just want our stuff back. As a circulation supervisor I’m very happy about this. Not only are fines a barrier to entry for low income patrons, they are a source of difficulty to our staff. It’s so much nicer not to have to fight with patrons about overdue items.
posted by evilDoug at 4:44 PM on December 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

It’s so much nicer not to have to fight with patrons about overdue items.
posted by evilDoug

I understand this, and yet, somehow I'm still confused.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:48 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am glad to see this spreading. When I was in middle and high school, the library system in town did not charge fines; it was explained to me then by the library director that they gave up the revenue of the fines, but benefited from much higher return rates (because people who had a book out long enough to generate larger fines would just shrug and keep it at that point).

Especially in terms of reducing barriers to access, I really like this approach.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:14 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

In some of the more privileged academic libraries, they will auto-renew your book for you (unless someone else has placed a hold). That practice may not be suitable for general libraries because of the base-level savvy required to place a hold, but if they can do with radically diminished fines...
posted by praemunire at 5:32 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

(Also, and speaking from experience, if you're a kid dependent on an unreliable parent to get to the library on time, there's a uniquely awful shame and feeling of helplessness when this results in big fines that you may not even be able to pay. I was too stubborn to be deterred, but it's not something you want to inflict on a kid who may be a marginal reader anyway.)
posted by praemunire at 5:34 PM on December 31, 2017 [28 favorites]

I always thought the "pay for the next guy" coffee shop meme was a little bougie, but I would love to be able to pay it forward by paying a kid's library fines. That would be one of my favorite charities ever. Someone just tell me where to send my money.
posted by mumblelard at 5:36 PM on December 31, 2017 [34 favorites]

I think the fine for faculty keepingbooks past due should be a bolt gun, but I’m hard core that way. Undergrads deserve leniency.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:38 PM on December 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

I think I recently read in the Phoenix library e-newletter that they're starting a new thing where kids can "work off" their overdue fines by participating in a library reading program. The child has to go to the library and be observed reading for a certain amount of time. I have mixed feelings about it because it seems like the library version of court-ordered community service, especially if most of the participants are poor kids.

I always thought the "pay for the next guy" coffee shop meme was a little bougie, but I would love to be able to pay it forward by paying a kid's library fines. That would be one of my favorite charities ever. Someone just tell me where to send my money.

Yeah, I've thought about doing that too. I haven't figured out a way to do it anonymously that would also be certain to go to kids' fines.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:03 PM on December 31, 2017

If they wanted to, maybe libraries could have donation boxes to cover book replacement costs. Otherwise I am happy to see them eliminate fees.
posted by emjaybee at 6:36 PM on December 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Huh. I wonder if I can ask my local library if I can pay off some peoples’ fines. That seems like a nice way to ring in the new year.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:45 PM on December 31, 2017 [7 favorites]

(Does anyone else hope Jessamyn sees this and weighs in?)
posted by Annika Cicada at 6:57 PM on December 31, 2017 [10 favorites]

Oh, for pity's sake -- just pay the fine. I once lost a library book -- paid the entire amount for the book...and then found it a week later in an obvious place where I, of course, never thought to look. I kept the book, and then library had the funds to replace said book.

In Canada, at least, you can't go through any cashier without getting a shake down for donations. If you're giving blindly and a corporation is taking your money for a tax write-off, then just make a direct donation to the library. You are using it, getting benefits from it, and if you are overdue, just think of it as replenishing the funds.

People risk huge fines when they text and drive, but hide under the bed because a library book is overdue?

If you want a literate society, pay the silly fine. There is no shame. Libraries are wonderful places. My local library has a recording studio, 3D printers, and so many other great things you can use for a song, that I wouldn't even care if I paid an annual fee to keep it going, let alone a fee for a late book. Libraries are something to cherish and celebrate.

There is something very sad about this article, but thank you for sharing, anyway.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:01 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

There is no shame.

Well, thank goodness you settled that.
posted by praemunire at 7:07 PM on December 31, 2017 [33 favorites]

Alexandra Kitty, the problem lies with kids who are poor. If their schedules are crazy, with parents picking shifts up haphazardly whenever they are available, and they live in an area with poor public transport and no car, or the car has to be used by the parents only for work, or or or or... the point is, they will not use the library at all, to avoid one more tax on being poor. So kids go without books, kids with no real way to get books BUT the library. So once again poor kids aren't reading. Now quite a lot that dooms people to cycles of generational poverty is out of the hands of the individual, but the common thread of those who do manage to climb out of that hole is literacy and education. Its not a perfect solution, but what you are saying in your little rant about "pay the fine" is that you want to keep closed one of the few avenues for ending generational poverty. And I find *that* very sad.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 7:11 PM on December 31, 2017 [45 favorites]

"Just pay the fine" contradicts the basic mission of libraries, which is to serve information to their patrons. Please don't tax the poor souls who often can't Amazon or Kindle a book and end up creating a $1.05 fine when the family car breaks down and they miss a weekly trip to the library. That $1.05 is barrier enough to prevent someone from using a library, someone that *needs* a library. Just give it to them for free. They need it more than anyone who can afford a fine needs it.

My parents apparently paid a large chunk of my unused clothing allowance to ensure that fines were not my problem, and so I quietly read 20-30 books *per week* for most of several years. We had to pay for a library card, too, because our county had none and I didn't live inside city limits. When I last asked about this years ago my mother seemed pretty angry at the whole affair, because she felt it unjust that they charge us twice for books when zero times would have been just as (in)effective versus my younger self. I knew fines were a thing, but I was a *child*, and so it only mattered a little bit.

And that's where I end up thinking from. Children are not equipped to absorb a life lesson from 'late fees', yet we teach them that seeking knowledge from a supposedly-free institution will eventually cost them, perhaps dearly. And when it does, they flee and never return, learning nothing but 'slip up once and you're forever locked away from learning'. I can't think of a better way to raise generations of children that loathe 'learning', because it's associated with a memory of their own failure and also their sadness at losing their library access forever. This trend reverses that, and places the burden of cost on adults: either we care, or we don't care, and they succeed or fail in response to that. Is it most optimal for revenue? Unknown. Is it most optimal for children? Yes. A thousand times yes.

Universities already often have policies in place to prevent undergrads from re-enrolling or receiving formal transcripts or degrees until they pay their overdue fines. I do agree that a different treatment is necessary for professors: Charge them the replacement cost of the book if it's more than 4 weeks overdue. They'll clearly need it for a while longer, and when they're done, the university will end up with an extra copy, which can be kept or donated to another institution through inter-library loan.

If, as an adult, you want a literate society, write your legislators every month and ask them to raise the library budget. When they give a press conference, write in and either congratulate their position, disagree with it, or query as to their position if they somehow failed to mention library funding. When your local press interviews a politician, do the same with the local press. Force them to confront, every time they speak, that you *care* what they think about library funding, and will continue to politely ask them to make a statement about it until they do. It'll cost $0.50 per letter, but if you want a literate society, pay the postage.

And if you have a child, read them your letters out loud after you've written them, and ask them what they think. They'll surprise you eventually, and maybe someday they'll join you.
posted by crysflame at 7:27 PM on December 31, 2017 [44 favorites]

Mrs. McGreevy? Why she's the...
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:27 PM on December 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think that libraries moving to reduce or eliminate fines is generally a good thing. For people who just can't afford to pay the fine, definitely; but even for people who can, it's kind of depressing how often I've seen things like

* The parent yells at the kid for being forgetful, and now both parent and kid have had an experience that makes them feel badly about libraries

* The borrower feels like the fine is being unfairly applied, and maybe the staff at the desk is kind of jerky about it by doubting their story or saying their excuse isn't good enough, and... okay, you got your fifty cents and you lost a patron. Nice.

* The book was returned on time but it didn't get checked in correctly and now you've wasted half an hour of staff time looking for it because the patron is totally sure that they returned it

* (This actually happened) The parent sent the kid to the library with a $20 to pay a $3 fine in the fine payment machine. The fine payment machine does not give change if you put cash in the machine. The kid, being ten or whatever, did not read all the directions on the fine payment machine. APPARENTLY, staff was rude or dismissive when the kid asked for help. So the kid put $20 in the machine, didn't get back any change, and the parent was angry about it forever more. (They weren't wrong).

These problems are mostly problems that could be solved with better customer service training, better equipment, and better library procedures. I worked for one of the above-named NYC-area libraries for almost ten years and got maybe ten minutes of customer service training in that time, and spent a lot of those ten years silently seething about coworkers who couldn't be bothered to be just a little bit nicer or give patrons a little bit more benefit of the doubt. And then we started sending delinquent accounts to collections agencies, and you have never seen someone mad like someone who got a collection notice for books they didn't even know were overdue because they moved and didn't change their address in the library system.

We've got to do better.

Getting rid of fines is a good start.
posted by Jeanne at 7:27 PM on December 31, 2017 [20 favorites]

Library fines produce the perverse opposite incentive that you would like. The bigger your fines accrue, the less likely you will ever return the book.

Don't have fines, but don't allow more checkouts until the overdue ones are returned -- for free.

And use email or text messages to provide gentle nag reminders. Something polite reminding them that there are others waiting in line they would like to share with. And that it would be great to see them again and check out more books.

Using fines as a revenue source costs more than it earns, as one of the articles points out.
posted by JackFlash at 8:33 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I was the head of circulation at an undergrad library, I did away with fines. The school had a mix of first gen college students and rich dummies - the latter group would not give a crap about paying fines and would hold on to books for an entire semester, which caused the first group to suffer. I did institute penalties for not returning materials - you didn't get access to laptops or study rooms if you had overdue materials - but that was back when most students did not have a laptop on hand. If I had to keep up today, I'd look in to shutting off library printing for people with overdue material.

Now that I'm a public librarian... Fines are a bit trickier. They are a political thing when it comes to town politics. When it snows and the plowing bill is high and each department is asked for budget cuts... we send the town fine money. That helps and often saves the library money - we're asked for 10k but only have 8k in fine money on hand and the town is happy with that (and we get more budget money next year because the Powers That Be remember our sacrifice). I know some other libraries in our network did away with fines because to collect them would require extra staffing that would cost more than fines collected.

I was pretty anti-fine, but I've sort of come around on them under certain conditions. I believe there needs to be a threshold for fines impacting your ability to borrow materials. We charge ten cents a day for books and a buck a day for most DVDs for movies/TV shows (Nonfiction DVDs are 10 cents). Borrowing is cut off if you owe more than 5 bucks. You get a receipt with due dates whenever you borrow. Fines max out at 5 bucks an item or 6 weeks overdue, whatever hits first. We provide the standard nags via email and three overdue letters.

All told, yeah, it probably costs more to enforce fines than what we make in them. Hell, I'm the head of circ and a large portion of my job is enforcing fines.

Thing is, it's not the poor families that have problems following due dates. If we did away with fines, we would be without Elephant and Piggy books within a month, not because the poor families don't return them, but the middle class families that can't be bothered would have them under Declan's bed. It's a tender subject, the folks who know they need the library follow the rules because they recognize it as a resource, but there are folks who simply do not care and unfortunately the only way to make them care is to make them pay cash money for depriving a shared resource from their peers.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:04 PM on December 31, 2017 [21 favorites]

Also, I have several old ladies who deliberately keep their books an extra two or three days so they can pay for the library that gets them their books. I tell them they can just donate, but they'd rather do it at 20 cents at a time.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:13 PM on December 31, 2017 [23 favorites]

I am a newly-minted trustee of my town library (fucking FINALLY) and I am amazed at the amount of money brought in by overdue fines. As in, only half the town has a card, much less uses it, but the money simply rolllls in a nickle at a time.

Tomorrow I intend to share this with my library’s awesome Director to see whether they have already run the numbers. (They’re nerdy like that, so I suspect they have, bless their dorky MLS hearts!)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:26 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, it’s definitely not only poor kids who feel the pinch & shame of fines: I was far from poor as a kid, but a couple of books for a grade school project kept me away from the the St. Paul Public Library system for years.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:34 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

One exception: university faculty. They never return their books. They can keep their fines. 😉

When I was hired onto a university as an unclassified ('professional faculty') IT worker, I discovered that faculty book checkouts are denominated in months. Which makes some amount of sense, but is a recipe for losing books.

if you're a kid dependent on an unreliable parent to get to the library on time

My childhood local library had, for a long while, dropoff locations spread across the suburban landscape. Just checked, and they still have them sprinkled throughout the city. This isn't a feature I've seen in any places I've lived since, but it helped a bit I guess after the family became far less reliable to be able to bike to the nearby shopping center to dropoff.

I never kept good track of due dates so fines kinda sucked and there was a period where we didn't go to the library because mom owed a lot over a VHS tape I think. The library seemingly ran an annual forgiveness program, so we were eventually back into the system, and I think at the time the county and city library didn't coordinate, so I could always go to the library across the street from dad's on visitation days.

I'm guessing the biggest change since I was a kid is email reminders. Even if you move apartments every year, your email address is fairly stable these days. I imagine a well worded reminder is far more effective. Do libraries A/B test email reminders to test effectiveness? Cuz the behavioral economist in me is curious to know if things like '5 of your neighbors are patiently awaiting their turn to enjoy $mat upon it's return' or the social proof techniques like '99 percent of borrowers on $yourblock return materials on time' improve return rates.
posted by pwnguin at 9:42 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

> Annika Cicada:
"(Does anyone else hope Jessamyn sees this and weighs in?)"

Frankly, that's why I am here.
posted by Samizdata at 9:50 PM on December 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

I was recently put in charge of a university student woodshop that loans portable tools to students. The loans are supposed to be limited to 24 hours but we've struggled to find a way to incentivize prompt returns, in part because our systems for keeping track of exactly who borrowed exactly what are roughly as tight as a colander; our threats to bill students for unreturned items are more or less empty. I've indulged in fantasies of Draconian fines facilitated by sticking RFID tags on everything and setting up sensors and alarms at the shop's five exits, but it would be challenging to calibrate such a policy so as not to undermine the shop's fundamental reason for existing. I want to see more creative tool use, not less.

Outright theft is rare: most of the unreturned items are found scattered throughout the department and retrieved sometime between semesters. Analogous to the situation robocop is bleeding described, loss isn't really the issue; the problem is that things not promptly returned are temporarily unavailable to other students.
posted by jon1270 at 10:01 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

One exception: university faculty. They never return their books. They can keep their fines.

Good luck with that. My faculty library privileges are pretty much crazy. I think the default loan period is 6 months, and plenty of renewals are allowed. Faculty are not charged fines, not even for recalled books. It's sort of absurd because out of all library users on campus, faculty can probably best afford the fines (or simply buy a book they want to keep for a year or more).
posted by ktkt at 12:02 AM on January 1, 2018

> ktkt:
"One exception: university faculty. They never return their books. They can keep their fines.

Good luck with that. My faculty library privileges are pretty much crazy. I think the default loan period is 6 months, and plenty of renewals are allowed. Faculty are not charged fines, not even for recalled books. It's sort of absurd because out of all library users on campus, faculty can probably best afford the fines (or simply buy a book they want to keep for a year or more)."

But I just NEED to book for NOW, not PERMANENTLY! Why should I buy it?
posted by Samizdata at 1:35 AM on January 1, 2018

you want a literate society, pay the silly fine. There is no shame.

No shame, unless you don’t have the money. In which case, the fines continue to accumulate. As many libraries demand replacement cost after a certain lateness period, it can easily run to hundreds of dollars for just a few books. (Replacement cost is always, always more than it costs to just buy the book on Amazon, I note.)
posted by corb at 1:42 AM on January 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

My local public library system does not charge fines on juvenile books, which is very sensible.

The academic library of which I am a systems librarian for now does auto-renewals, so unless the book you have has been reserved (or a couple other less likely factors), it gets renewed and fines are only charged if you then don't return that reserved item after a short grace period. We did a lot of work with the student union, who were very firm that they wanted students who withheld books from other students by not returning them when they were reserved to be fined (but they personally as students didn't want to be fined for not returning reserved books. Because that was unfair. *sideways look to camera*)

As part of the auto-renewal process, we got rid of staff loan periods and now with a few exceptions involving students on teaching placements and short courses, everyone gets the book for a guaranteed period of X and then they have to be aware that someone might reserve it and they will then get fined if they do not return it.

Non payment of fines prevents access to certain functions in the library but does not prevent graduation.
posted by halcyonday at 2:22 AM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

It seems like the per item per day amount of the fines hasn't changed much in the past few decades, despite inflation.

Regarding shame, when I was traveling every week for work, I never went to the library because I knew the odds of my returning the books on time were infinitesimal, felt anticipatory guilt about hogging the materials and dreaded the conversation accompanying fine-paying. All of that can be traced to a single awful librarian who ran the branch library near my childhood home. For starters, her test of whether kids were "mature" enough to "handle the responsibility of a library card" was whether they could print both neatly and small enough to fit their names/addresses on the tiny index card-sized form. The system screwed the "ethnic" kids with long names, like me, while posing much less of a barrier for the WASP kids. I was sent away from the desk, head hanging in shame, because my handwriting didn't pass muster: no card for me! She also posted a list of who owed over $x in fines. If you racked up more than y infractions, your borrowing privledges were temporarily suspended, even if you paid the fines. There was rejoicing when she retired and was replaced by someone kind, a newly minted MLS who shockingly seemed to think her job entailed helping people of all ages access the holdings.

Nevertheless, I love love love libraries and I'm fascinated by how they've been evolving. Now that I'm off the road, I realize I should start patronizing the library more often. There's a good idea for a resolution... and one I can actually keep!
posted by carmicha at 2:27 AM on January 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

-"(Does anyone else hope Jessamyn sees this and weighs in?)"

-"Frankly, that's why I am here."
Some quick google-ing found this interesting thread on
posted by Blasdelb at 2:48 AM on January 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is such good news. Library fines were crippling to me as a child, I felt like I was permanently in debt. The only time I could get to the library was Saturday morning and it was a twenty minute walk each way. I tried making a detour to return books on the walk to school once which meant leaving my brother to walk alone for a few minutes and in that short space of time he managed to get hit by a car (seriously, little brothers, you can't make this shit up) so that was the last time I did that.
posted by kitten magic at 3:58 AM on January 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

I worked at the circulation desk of a small public library for a short time in the early 80s. I would have been so happy to not have to deal with overdue fines! When I started, the fines were two cents per day and people would argue over how we counted the days. When fines went up to five cents per day, people were furious at the huge increase. I don't know how many people were kept away from the library by the fines, but they were a huge hassle for the circulation staff in exchange for a few pennies.
posted by maurice at 5:37 AM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

jon1270, just have people use something important to “tag out” the borrowed tool to ensure that they will need to return it on time. (I would say use their ID but that would probably lock them out of all the campus building and prevent them from eating — most likely a no-go.)

Alternately, find out if the campus book library has the power to place an academic hold and then see if you can get in on that: making the (explicit and threatening) sign would be a great project, too!

Or maybe a picture of the borrower would be used to tag out the tool, and everyone would learn who the deadbeats were by sight. If you don’t have real leverage then maybe social pressure is your only option left.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:09 AM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have often wondered about the feasibility of a library system where each patron can (totally voluntarily) deposit a sum of money into a personal account- a "cardholder reserve" of some sort. And any fines you accrue are just deducted from that.

There could be different levels - for example, I rarely have fines or lose books etc. so I would be a Level One person- say, $10 per year. But if you're likely to max out your reserve, or are depositing reserve dollars for other family members or relatives, you can opt to put in as much as you like.

In fact, let's say you can link your account to anyone you like, to help spread out the ability to cover other people's fines. There can even be an option to participate in a program to use your account to hep contribute to a "public pool" to help anonymously pay off the fines of others.

The combined reserve dollars can be invested to produce revenue for the library itself, like the way insurance companies can use premiums to fund the payout of claims.

(I am sure there are all sorts of reasons why this might be a terrible idea, but it seems like it could work.)
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:15 AM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

My ex wife got a library card in my name while we were married (I had no idea she had done this) then proceeded to rack up over 100 dollars in fines in my name.

So that sucked.

Anyway it was my own damn fault for getting married to her.
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:40 AM on January 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

(This was not my current, and amazing wife)
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:43 AM on January 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The public library in the town I went to college in (Columbia, Missouri) does not charge fines. I did not know this and the first time I had an overdue book I walked in to pay it and was gobsmacked when I was told there was no fine.

And when I lived in Silicon Valley, the county library system didn’t charge fines on children’s books which I thought was a wonderful compromise. They do charge you for the book if you never return it, though...
posted by zsazsa at 7:44 AM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am terrrrible about returning my books even though the library is only three blocks away, and in fact one of my new year's resolutions is to not accumulate any library fines in 2018. But I pay them happily, because my books stay checked out through laziness and forgetfulness, and I'm lucky enough to be at a point in my life where I can pay them without issue.

When I was about 20, I left a stack of newly checked out library books in the back of my boyfriend's new used car overnight. We didn't know that the car leaked extensively, and when it rained that night, the books were ruined. I was barely able to pay my rent and certainly didn't have the $80+ in replacement costs lying around. It was a few years before I could even overcome the embarrassment and shame and set up a payment plan to get them paid off and start using the library again.

I just went and looked up the Seattle library system fee policy: "Delinquent accounts for adults, children or teens with a balance due of $25 or more are submitted to Unique Management Service, a collection agency. The agency will contact borrowers on behalf of the Library until balances are paid or arrangements are made with the Library for repayment and return of overdue materials. The Library adds a $12 fee to a borrower's account when the account is submitted to the collection agency."

I think next time I'm in the branch I'll ask if it's possible to pay off some kids' accounts.
posted by skycrashesdown at 10:51 AM on January 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

“Hey,” Jayden said to Mackenzie. “What’s your worst fear?”

“I don’t actually know. I’m afraid of heights, snakes, and spiders. You?”

“Turning into a scarecrow.”
Forget Meyers-Briggs, the only two personality types are Jaydens and Mackenzies.
posted by ejs at 11:06 AM on January 1, 2018

The library where I work charges fines, 5 cent per item per book. And you get to check out 12 items, so it can rack up quite easily, but we max out at I think a tenner per item... I need to check that as I think it changed recently.

Our replacement costs are either 1) you give us the amount that we paid for the item or 2) you find the exact same item in good condition and give it to us. So it can work out cheaper. We do have an issue with people who lose books, pay for them, and then find the book. Come in the following week and then we have to do a refund procedure. It is the one thing I'd change, if you pay for the book then its yours, I don't want it back.

I think we will probably be getting rid of fines at some point. Irish libraries are sorta in the process of being nationalised, whereas before they were run by the individual county councils, so we're trying to amalgamate over 30 different procedures and policies into one. And it is being done by stealth too, so that's a whole 'nother issue, but certainly some Irish libraries never charged fines. Others charged postage if they had to send you a letter. Plenty of them only charged adults. And the rest charged everybody. At the moment we all charge everybody, but, depending on the authority you might have no problem getting at least part of your fine waivered.

We do email people three days before their books are due, but we can't afford to send people texts at that stage, although they do get them as soon as their books are overdue. Still, if you have 12 items out that'll cost you 60 cents for one day, and if you are a parent with multiple children then it might be a lot more.

I think I'd be in favour of getting rid of fines for children at least.
posted by Fence at 11:26 AM on January 1, 2018

The Seattle system sounds nuts. So for 25 fucking bucks they are going to screw with some family's credit rating, and thus ability to get vital services like renting apartments and buying cars? And presumably like most collection agencies they keep half or more of the recovered money, and if not recovered will sell it on to some bottom feeder.
posted by tavella at 12:47 PM on January 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

We're currently in a ridiculous position, where we'd had one board book overdue for a day or two, so we owed the library 15¢, and they weren't set up to take fines that small. ??

I've had whole places I don't go to again because I erred in some way, yay social anxiety, so removing an obstacle to going to the library would be nice.
posted by XtinaS at 1:09 PM on January 1, 2018

Like a number of librarians, I’m anti-fines. There’s a lot of data to show that in most cases it’s counter-productive to the mission of the library, super in-equitable, and costs as much in staff time as is taken in.

Frankly, I can’t remember to return my own books on time. It’s one reason why I stopped using the Houston Public Library (to this day I have a fine on my record). That’s no great loss to me, with a couple million books at my fingertips through work, but a hell of a loss to a poor kid.

Clearly there are circumstances where fines make sense, but in most cases I’m opposed.
posted by librarylis at 1:31 PM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Seattle system sounds nuts. So for 25 fucking bucks they are going to screw with some family's credit rating, and thus ability to get vital services like renting apartments and buying cars?

Yeah, I'm pretty much of the opinion that if you, as a government service, hire a collection agency because you don't want to be bothered collecting the fees, and don't care about the credit effect on your poorer're making the wrong choice for sure.
posted by corb at 1:38 PM on January 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Every four months or so I pay my fines down to where I can check out books again. I just consider it my minor donation to the library.
posted by happyroach at 3:32 PM on January 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

so we owed the library 15¢, and they weren't set up to take fines that small

Hennepin County has self checkout and each machine accepts coins to pay off your fines. I love it because I feel guilty paying a fine under $3 with a card, so I would always have to wait in line before.
posted by soelo at 5:08 PM on January 1, 2018

So here's the thing: I too don't mind paying library fines. Like most people here, they're not a hardship for me. But middle-class people need to stop advocating policies that only reflect our needs and experiences. Libraries are for everyone, not just for me.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:14 PM on January 1, 2018 [22 favorites]

I just went and looked up the Seattle library system fee policy: "Delinquent accounts for adults, children or teens with a balance due of $25 or more are submitted to Unique Management Service, a collection agency. The agency will contact borrowers on behalf of the Library until balances are paid or arrangements are made with the Library for repayment and return of overdue materials. The Library adds a $12 fee to a borrower's account when the account is submitted to the collection agency."

Googling reveals that to be a collection agency that specializes solely in "library asset recovery", and I cannot decide whether I'm surprised or not that this is a corporate niche that exists.
posted by eponym at 8:15 PM on January 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

The good thing about Unique is that they don't report to the credit agencies (so your credit score is not going to drop because of a library book you didn't return) and they are not as aggressive as some collection agencies are - I find it kind of hilarious how they talk about "preserving patron goodwill through our Gentle Nudge® process" on their web page, but if you have to use a collection agency you could probably do worse.

But I'm really not happy about how much library work is getting outsourced. It means that you have less ability to be responsive at the local level; it means that you're putting a lot in the hands of a company whose values and priorities may not align at all with the mission of a public library.

For example: in the library system I used to work for, librarians had quite a lot of discretion to waive fines, especially smaller fines. I didn't do it a lot, but if you have a convincing sob story or a good excuse, yeah. Sure.

Once your account goes into collections, I couldn't waive that fine anymore. I met people who had racked up big fines because, let's say, they got evicted and had to move quickly and everything got shoved into boxes and didn't get unpacked for a while - and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it if I wanted to waive their fine, or even knock it down a little. They had to fill out a customer service form which went to my supervisor, and then my supervisor had to contact his supervisor.

The moral of the story is:

1) Library outsourcing is not inherently bad but we should be kind of suspicious of it even with companies that use a "Gentle Nudge® process"

2) If you have late/lost books, and you have a reasonable excuse, go talk to the librarian as soon as you can and not in 60 days when it might already have been turned over to the collection agency and then they will feel bad about not being able to help you.
posted by Jeanne at 7:06 AM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

Although I didn't include them in the post, I did gather some links about collections agencies for libraries. While Unique no longer reports library fines to credit agencies, they used to under certain conditions. They no longer can; under the terms of the 2015 National Consumer Assistance Plan, a number of non-loan debts can no longer be reported, including unpaid parking tickets and library fines. Before then, there would sometimes be threads on credit repair forums about how to deal with credit report entries put in by "Unique National Collections" (one of their trade names), and I found a rather through writeup of Unique by a consumer advocate.
posted by metaquarry at 7:45 AM on January 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm a member of our local public library board. It's a volunteer position, but there's a perk--my fines are waived.
posted by a fish out of water at 10:20 AM on January 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am another librarian who thinks overdue fines are stupid and self-defeating.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:57 AM on January 2, 2018

I haven't used our public library since 1998.

That book is still on my shelf.

Just because Metafilter doesn’t believe in overdue fines that doesn’t mean you should actually steal from the library. Return that book turkey.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:13 PM on January 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

The SF Public Library is going the other direction:
The San Francisco Public Library tried being nice. Now it’s playing hardball.

It wants its overdue books back, and it’s going to sic the tax collector on 13,000 of its worst offenders.

In a new crackdown, which takes effect Jan. 1, the library will ask the office of the San Francisco tax collector — the same outfit that evicts people from their homes for not paying their property taxes — to get into the act.

“We have an opportunity to reach out to our patrons,” said library spokeswoman Katherine Jardine, adding that it’s the first time the tax collector — and the full range of debt collection strategies — have been employed to settle library debts.
posted by Lexica at 3:52 PM on January 3, 2018

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