Don’t end library fines

This week’s Hot Topic:  Library fines.

Of all the things about libraries (all of the abundant, free things), people seem to struggle with library fines the most.  Yes, I know, making the ten-minute drive to return your book on time, after three or four month-long renewals is an almost impossible feat  I mean, why don’t you just ask me to cure world hunger, for crying out loud?  And so, it’s only logical that many folks consider the five or ten cents libraries charge per day to make you return the materials that they used their budget to purchase a gross injustice.  The utter gall!

My transparency is appalling, I know.

I have a ton of patience and excitement about explaining many things about the nature of libraries to people who ask, but debating the justification of fines is not one of them.  I am persnickety about very few things, but this is definitely included in them.

Will I feel sympathy for the friend who owes $80 in fines for unreturned DVDs?  No.  (That is a true anecdote from a few years ago.  Yes, it’s still your fault if you forgot to return them before going back to college from your winter break.)  At Western State College in Colorado, the fine for a lost DVD – $100.  It’s cheaper to replace it with another DVD, but they would rather have the bucks. And the Guinness Book of World Records reported the largest fine for an overdue library book is $345.14 – the amount owed at two cents a day for the poetry book,  Days and Deeds.  Pennies do add up.   Emily Canellos-Simms.checked the poetry book  out of Kewanee Public Library, Illinois in April 1955.  The book was due back April 19, 1955.  Emily found it in her mother´s house – 47 years later. She  paid the library with a check. Now that’s honesty at work.

There’s very little excuse for failing to avoid a fee.  Libraries now even provide online card accounts so you can renew things in a matter of seconds.  Or, seriously? Just drive over there and slip the books in the material deposit slot outside.  Done and done, no interaction necessary; you probably don’t even need to slow your car down.

And remember, if the offender had returned the material when listed, they would have gotten it completely free.  What kills me is, most people (including myself) will pay $5 for a latte, but the $.05 per day charge rockets patron frustration to Tea Partying heights.  Tar-and-feathering, this week at your friendly community library.

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I will note that I am calling the kettle black:  I myself have racked up some tremendous charges in my borrowing life.  I am familiar with the sense of shame at passing the library in my car and recalling the stack of overdue books on my dresser.  I have crossed into double-digit decimal places on my fine record (though a lady never discloses the true amount).

No sympathy. Pay up. (Public Domain)

And if you find yourself indignant over late fees, you will be horrified to know that a recent Atlantic article called for American libraries to begin charging to even borrow materials.  The author writes, “municipal government needs to stop thinking like it’s 1900. There are opportunities to provide tax relief in our towns and cities by moving toward targeted fees that affect those who use municipal services.”

Such impudence may spark your fury about having to pay for something that was once free, but also anchor your ire in the amazing ignorance with which this writer judges the role of libraries in our communities.  Apparently the fact that many library patrons come from economically- and socially-disadvantaged groups does not factor into the logic of his argument.

Many very wealthy communities, such as Essex Fells, New Jersey (median income:  $182,031, as of 2000) do not even have a library, thus factoring out a demographic qualified to foot a library bill.  Middle-class communities may be able to afford library service charges, albeit with discontent.  But poorer communities, whose patrons most often depend on the free access in libraries, will most certainly suffer if charges are applied.

I personally feel late fees are a good balance.   They are not so much revenue for the library as they are insurance that the better part of the collection is available in-house for patron use.  However, this does not erase their controversiality.  On the one end, some folks will do most anything to avoid a charge, including following sneaky instructions for fooling your librarians.

Gracious me, we’ve never seen this one before!  You pulled one over us there.  The crafty patron wins again!

The New York Society Library discovered papers showing President George Washington in 1789 borrowed the 12th volume of the “Commons Debates” and a copy of “Law of Nations.” He never returned either.
He owes more $300,000, after adjusting for inflation. Pay up.  (Public Domain)

On the other end, there are those that consider paying your library fine a civic duty, like jury duty.  I cite the oft-repeated tale at my library:  a library executive board member returned a book, and the circulation staff informed her it was several days overdue.  She, with her chin held high, reached into her handbag for the money and, before depositing it on the counter, turned to the entire first floor and proclaimed, “It is a privilege to pay this library fine!”

I have to say, this may be a little extreme, but if you think about the preciousness of free access to information (especially in the era of “Please creat a log-in and enter your credit card information” error messages), you’ll see she does have a point.

However, wherever you fall on the spectrum is up to personal perspective.  Libraries can use fines for evil, like this library employee who got caught for “making off with $163,582 in library fines collected by the three public library branches in Yonkers over a seven-year period” in June.  So suspicion is sometimes warranted.  And neither I nor your library can change your mind, thanks to our free, democratic society!  America is a beautiful place.

But don’t think libraries will wait for you to pony up forever.  Don’t pay them and it can impact your credit score.  For example, The Westerville Public Library in Westerville, Ohio reports the guilty patron to a collection agency when items are 175 to 206 days overdue. They first contact the patron three times by mail and twice by phone. They also offer options such as returning the materials, or even trying to renew them.

And too many unpaid fines on your record could mean the unthinkable:  jail time, like for this woman in Albuquerque this past June (June was a notable month for the American library institution, apparently).  Librarians are patient people, but sometimes even they need to whip out a summons or two to get their jobs done.

You may be surprised, but even Charlie Brown knew what was up