Rethinking What We Do: Fines

“If you didn’t have library fines, no one would return anything,” I said this, to myself and others, time and again, over the course of the decade when I worked at a school with library fines. Worst of all, I had to receipt every five cents.

I didn’t feel our fine structure was unreasonable. After a two-day grace period, the school library charged five cents a day, for twenty-five a week, versus 25 cents per item, per day, over a seven-day week, totaling 1.75 a week at the public library.

Fines weres important because ittyhey were my funding source. Those fines and dimes for printouts and photocopies, supplemented with small grants, made up my materials budget. I struggled with charging students, but other schools charged more for printing. One librarian had hers in line with the supermarket photocopier, 25 cents per page.

Not that I ever went after fines or the overdue materials. There were only a handful of times that I stopped a kid at checkout for overdue books. More typically, I might not even remind them of overdues or outstanding fines if someone else was in earshot. When I left that school, the new librarian wanted to check the list of overdues. I guess she imagine a box or, at worst, a shelf of unprocessed returns.

I had to tell her that yes, there were four hundred people with materials out from the library. No, it wasn’t a mistake. I really couldn’t put myself between teens and books in that way.

But was I inculcating some bad habits? Since we didn’t have a local public library, I welcomed outreach from our public library, which meant teens could sign up for cards on the spot. Their policies were less laissez-faire. The city issued bench warrants for overdue materials, so if they were involved in even minor traffic accidents, police who ran their license could take them to jail for overdue materials. I did NOT want to set them up for that…

But were the token fines a deterrent to checkout or a carrot to ensure return? I always had lots of materials outstanding. I did make a big push at the end of each year, but only at graduation would kids be forced to pay up. Kids floated debt on athletic fees, band, and textbooks. If it seemed to be a financial hardship, I paid seniors’ fines myself, as did our principal and lunchroom manager. Alternately, I also accepted donations or work from students. The shake-down to get their diploma was infamous, and some students told me getting your name on “the list” was part of “the senior experience.” Many times, refusal to settle up was a matter of sheer obstinency, as when one school board member’s daughter stopped in on her way to graduation.

At my new school, we don’t charge fines or for printing or photocopying. How do I buy materials? My principal allocates a modest amount for the library and underwrites duplication. This gives me latitude to retrieve database articles for students, mark up their work, let them print their DREAM Act paperwork, or all twenty pages of blathering comments an news article for their current event. And things get returned. I started the summer with proportionately fewer students with items out.

The only negative is the environmental impact. Students struggle with printing frames, and I wish they reinforced print selection and print preview options in all browsers. But maybe this will cease to count as we all go paperless, just like fines on digital checkouts have become a moot point…

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One Comment

  1. I work on an outreach vehicle and we don’t have fines on our materials. However, if they are over forty-five days overdue, the system will put the materials into “lost” status and try to charge the patron for the replacement cost of the book. When they return it, they cost is removed from their account. Also, they can only have three items out at a time, so if they want to get books, they have to return the books they have. I tell the kids, “We just want the books back so other kids can enjoy them!”

    I feel that in a library, it’s important to give patrons a reason to return the books, even if it’s getting more books or avoiding paying a replacement cost. We are much less strict than any of the branch libraries and we do our best to foster a love of reading without adding the negative feelings about the library that the kids’ parents may have. I think it’s all about balance.

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