Drop the Fines, Dammit.

From time to time, I counsel other libraries on how to think about fines and fees and service charges, both from a technical perspective but also from a philosophical one. Last week, I had one of these conversations, and, as I’m trying to rekindle a public writing habit, I thought I’d recount some thoughts from that talk.1

One of the many hot potatoes of library service is library fines. Over the last several years, I had the opportunity to dig deep into what fines do, how a library collects them, and what fines don’t do at all.

On the surface, it would seem that a fine for a late book would change behavior, or encourage someone to behave “better” and return things on time.

Turns out though, like with plenty of other stuff, library fines don’t change behavior in the ways you might wish they did. A while back, the Colorado State Library commissioned a study on the impact of fines and fees. Several other states have done this, too. Fines and fees discourage people from coming to the library at all. They dissuade vulnerable populations from using resources that are designed for them.

But they don’t really encourage people to bring back materials any faster.

When we move to drop fees, there’s always someone who raises the concern that fines and fees teach people how to be better people. It’s necessary, these folks might say, to teach kids a lesson about personal responsibility.

Nah. This isn’t the place or the time to do so. Dropping late fees (and minimizing other charges for the library experience) is one thing we can do to, quite simply, create a better public literacy fabric for those most in need of one.

Drop your late fees, libraries. Do it now. Do it today. While you’re at it, forgive someone who lost a book once. Maybe twice even. Odds are the book wasn’t brand new and maybe no one else wanted to read it, anyway.

Reduce the friction necessary to help someone fall deeply in love with the world of knowledge and information.

At our library, the data we had told us that less, far less, than 1 percent of our patrons were the folks who abused the privilege of using the library. They owed us more than $100 in fees – not because their books were late, but because they took stuff and never brought it back. In some – BUT NOT ALL – of those cases, the folks were nefarious actors. They took the library materials not to use them, but to resell them, or to hide them from others, or some reason other than they were curious.2

There’s no lesson to teach there that a fine or fee is going to impart. We often do terrible things to vulnerable folks when we think we can be teaching a lesson of some kind.3

Introducing a child to the universe of ideas and the worlds of wonder isn’t free. There are costs of doing business. One is that books wear out. Materials are sometimes lost. A good book, a really good book, might take longer to read than we’d like it to.

We do not benefit as a society by penalizing the most vulnerable children in ways that teach them to avoid the library. We should be doing everything in our collective power to do the opposite.

Books are not treasures, in and of themselves.4 Book rich environments are the treasures. Access to information is the magic. Specific copies of Harry Potter? Not so much. That fellow who has the next one on hold? Another day or two of waiting won’t destroy his love of reading. Smacking a kid with the righteous stick of Teach You A Lesson just might.

I’ve never met a librarian that wants to be the reason a kid stops reading. But I’ve met plenty who thought they were doing good in the Teaching of a Lesson. I’ve been that guy sometimes.

I, and they, are wrong to do so.

At our library, and at plenty of others where librarians have stopped collecting fines and fees for late stuff, we didn’t see a change in behavior when the fines and fees were dropped. Books weren’t suddenly kept for forever. It didn’t happen. 99 percent of our patrons are kind and responsible and trying their best.

There wasn’t actually a lesson to teach.

So, library and non-library friends – help me help everyone help libraries, in schools, in towns, and anywhere else stop collecting fees that are about being punitive and moralistic.

And don’t fret so much when kids grab a graphic novel. Or listen to an audio book. Or want to watch a movie from the library. But that’s another post.

  1. It didn’t hurt that my book club just read Susan Orleans’ The Library Book, and so I had all the twirls about the greatness of libraries in my head at the time. []
  2. And we should never set policy for everybody considering the least of us. We should write policies that assume we’re all good and fine and thoughtful people. []
  3. Think about work requirements for public assistance and other ideas that seem smart but are really just mean and far beneath us as a country. []
  4. I know. I know. Some of your most precious possessions are special books. I get it. But I’m talking about books in general. Shared books. Books for everybody. []

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