Thursday, June 2, 2011

To Fine or Not to Fine?

As you may know, Lauren and I recently had an article published in the Feliciter. The article stems from a mock debate Lauren and I staged for a workshop that asked the question, to fine or not to fine? I wanted to ensure that all of our libraries had a chance to read what Lauren and I learned, so I have received permission from CLA to reproduce the text of the article here:

To Fine or Not to Fine?
(By Lauren Jessop and Terra Plato)

To fine or not to fine…that is the question that was discussed in a debate staged by Chinook Arch Regional Library System in November 2010. This session was just one in a series of training sessions designed to teach librarianship fundamentals to member library staff and managers– many of whom work at small rural libraries which often depend on the income generated by fines. The two sides of the debate were presented by librarians Lauren Jessop who took the pro side, and Terra Plato who took the con.

Pro Introduction:
The status quo is to fine patrons when they have failed to return an item by the due date, but there are some who claim that fines are unfair and act as a barrier to service. It is undeniable that sometimes fines can get in the way of library service; however, the argument can be made that they are a necessary evil.

Fines ensure that materials are returned on or before their due dates. Almost exclusively financial in nature, fines can range from a mere nickel to upwards of $10.00 or so (depending on the type of material and the amount of time past the due date). When a patron signs up for a library card, they agree to be responsible for all materials borrowed on the card. This is a responsibility not only to take care of the item, but also to comply with the library’s policies, including fine rates and borrowing periods. This is a contract to ensure that library materials are available for everyone when they need them.

It comes down to two things:

  1. How can we provide good customer service to our patrons when items are not in the library because there is no incentive to bring them back on time?

  2. Many libraries would not be able to function without the revenue generated from fines.
    While fines may be a necessary evil, most libraries make it as easy as possible to avoid charging them – patrons are sent a courtesy notice to remind them that items are coming due and patrons can renew their items online, in person, at the library or by phone. Libraries also have book drops to make returning items after hours easy.
Fines are necessary to ensure that items are returned to the library.

Con Introduction:
In order to best answer the question of ‘to fine or not to fine’ we need to take a step back and look at the fundamental principles of libraries. What do our mission statements say? Usually thinks like:

  • To meet the needs for information… to all segments of our community.

  • To promote and encourage lifelong learning and literacy for all members of our community.

  • To provide free and equal access to information and resources for everyone.

The words ‘all’ and ‘everyone’ abound in our mission statements. How can we achieve the equality in service we claim to provide when we put up barriers for those with fewer resources?
The ALA’s publication “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”, states:

All library policies and procedures, particularly those involving fines,fees, or other user charges, should be scrutinized for potential barriers to access.
Does the charging of fines in your library compromise your mission statement?

Lauren: “Without fines, many patrons would be unlikely to return their items and eventually libraries might end up with no items to lend out at all. Without fines, the library is relying on people to “do the right thing” and some people need consequences to behave appropriately. Some people need the occasional “financial nudge.”

Without fines, what incentive would people have to return their items?”

Terra: “In fact, fines are often found to be a deterrent to returning items. The Free Library of Philadelphia discovered after raising their fines that fewer books were coming back, people were not paying the fines, and more importantly, fewer people were borrowing books.

For those patrons who cannot afford to pay them, fines can be an embarrassment. These patrons may simply choose not to come back rather than admit they can’t pay the fines. Traditional alternatives offered by libraries (such as paying in installments) require the patron to reveal potentially embarrassing personal information and force them to negotiate or prove their need.

You claim that we might end up with no items to lend out? What would we do with no patrons?”

Lauren: “Public libraries are a community resource and as such everyone has the right to use them and the materials they hold. If people don’t bring items back or bring them back late, they are depriving others of these resources.

Furthermore, many patrons simply go to the library to “browse.” If the items are not returned on time then the serendipity of finding that perfect resource may be lost.

Everyone has paid for library resources. The library has a responsibility to the taxpayers to make sure that items are available for everyone.”

Terra: “Libraries are indeed imbued with the public trust. They have a responsibility to ensure that public funds are spent in a responsible manner. How much is staff time worth? Should staff time be spent helping patrons or collecting fines? Staff who are not collecting fines can spend their time offering quality customer service.

It’s questionable whether the time staff spend dealing with fines is even paid for by the fines collected. In fact, at the City University Hong Kong Library, a rough estimate indicated that in processing overdue fine payments there was a loss of $0.66 per transaction.

Lauren: “The library is one of the last bastions of social responsibility. There are few places where people are obligated to do something because it is the socially responsible thing to do. By charging fines, libraries are teaching children (and adults) about responsibility.

In surveys at two public libraries “…the percentage in favour of keeping fines was overwhelming (around 80% …). Patrons… felt that people should be punished for depriving others of the use of the materials …and they didn’t feel that a simple suspension of privileges was good enough – they felt this condoned theft…”

The minimal fines charged for overdue items should be considered by patrons as a donation to the library and a reminder that next time they should be more responsible.

Terra: “Using fines to teach consequences, to youth in particular, is very dangerous territory. The Mahoning County Library implemented a no fine policy for juvenile materials in the early 90’s based on the fact that they sometimes witnessed a child being reprimanded by a parent for not returning books on time and after paying the fine, told by the parent not to use the library anymore.

Clearly this is not the intention of fines, but this is the result. Children who either cannot afford to pay the fines, are afraid to tell their parents, or who are reprimanded are being taught something else altogether – that the library is not a fun, safe or productive place to go. And we in fact may be turning away our future patron base.”

Lauren: “The public have high expectations for their public library – they expect the library to operate in a business-like manner and reaching those expectations requires money. For the library to stay on top of current trends, to have staff available to help patrons and to keep the library stocked with the latest materials they require more money than they get from traditional sources.

In 2009 in Chinook Arch libraries alone approximately $300,000 was generated from fines and membership fees. If libraries were to dispense with fines, where would that money come from?”

Terra:”In fact, businesses are moving away from similar fine models. Blockbuster abandoned its library-style late-fee system for a more modern approach to lending - the borrow-something-else-when-you’re-finished model. Netflix and other similar companies don’t have due dates or charge late fees and these companies are experiencing unprecedented success. What if libraries adopted this approach to lending? What success might we see then?”


Pro: “Fines not only generate revenue so that libraries can provide quality service, but they also ensure that the materials are available when people need them. Fines might just be a necessary evil.”

Con: What if your library didn’t charge fines? What if you didn’t collect $200 or $1000 a year? What if instead your memberships increased? What if more people came back to the library because barriers were removed? What if your library’s circulation increased? What if more children became lifelong library users? What if libraries did everything they could to truly fulfill their stated missions of serving EVERYONE in the community?”

"With acknowledgement that the article was first published in the Canadian Library Association publication Feliciter, Vol. 57, No. 2 and is used with permission of the Canadian Library Association"

No comments:

Post a Comment