By: Robert Sarwark
Among my job responsibilities as a factotum small-campus academic librarian are managing and settling overdue and lost-item/replacement fines. What on paper first seemed like a pretty straightforward set of policies (which I inherited but have the power to adjust) turns out to be surprisingly complex from patron to patron. What’s more, there are ethical, socioeconomic, and — most relevant to this blog — intellectual-freedom implications at play here that I have been pondering. This post is my attempt to look critically at that fine line (yes, I went there) between patrons’ fair and open access to library materials and those same libraries’ mandate to equitably offer and protect the materials themselves.
I was curious about what the rest of Libraryland thought about best practices here. Naturally, my first stop was social media. Librarians, as we know, are more often than not highly literate, collaborative, and also constructively critical of the status quo. They also freaking love Twitter. If you haven’t before (though I’m guessing you very likely have) check out #LibrariansOfTwitter for a rich tapestry of poignant, humorous, and, yes, sometimes even potty-mouthed repartee. Librarians also tend not to shy away from pushing back against policies contrary to intellectual freedom, information access, and societal equity in general.
And then there’s @LIS_Grievances.
This is a bot. But, in its defense (not a courtesy I offer most other bots, for the record), it is a bot programmed by a real librarian, Tim Ribaric (@elibtronic). It is activated by anyone with a Twitter account (most of whom are ostensibly real professionals in the library and information science field) sending a direct message to the bot account. Within the bounds of its service terms, one may anonymously post a grievance, critical observation, or perhaps even legitimate outrage related to the field of librarianship. Within fifteen minutes an approved message is posted on the account’s timeline for all the world to see, laugh at, commiserate with, resent deeply, etc., etc. I am aware that some find this bot’s very existence problematic, and that specific grievances may have offended acquaintances of mine. People do say controversial things when they’re anonymous. But the results can also be lighthearted and fun.
I quickly found a few critical responses to the library-fine question on LIS Grievances, in particular in the form of two exchanges between the bot and a single user:
The funny thing is . . . most books come back just fine. People bring books back so they can get more books. If too many books, too overdue, blocks a person’s account, they will bring them back.
— Scout Calvert (@windloochie) July 21, 2018
Confirmation bias. Run a circulation report and get your head clear on this. If it’s taking fines to get the books back, your library isn’t welcoming, or you don’t have enough good books. If people want to check out more books, they return the ones they already have.
— Scout Calvert (@windloochie) July 27, 2018
I like what Scout Calvert is getting at here and tend to agree. And while I worry a little about the conditions of the both anonymous users’ libraries (if it is indeed two different people), it seems fair to hope that, even at the most neglected or underfunded units, making the space and its policies welcoming and patron-oriented should be considered before anything else.
How Free Should ‘Free’ Be?
As mentioned, protecting library materials so they may be equitably shared is the other side of the fine line. In my experience, that line is clearly crossed when a patron admittedly loses an item or it has been overdue long enough (over 90 days in my school’s case) that it is presumed missing. In these cases, I think that expecting a replacement — either with a payment in the exact amount listed for the item or with an exact-edition replacement copy — is perfectly fair. No shame, no judgment.
But the real debate, as you might imagine, comes down to what the impetus for any patron to return an item is in the first place. Is it the threat of an accruing fine, however small? Or is it, as argued above on Twitter, that patrons respond better to the positive reinforcement of always returning books so they can get more?
As a patron, for me it’s both. Like most people (I think?) I do not like having to spend money when it can be avoided. But I also want to get my hands on more library books. That my public library, the Atlanta-Fulton Public, enforces the following policies, then, is truly all right with me:
• Adult/Young Adult Books and other materials – 10 cents a day, maximum
$5 per item
• Adult/Young Adult DVDs and Videos – $1 per day, maximum $5 per item
• Children’s books – 5 cents a day, maximum $3 per item
• Children’s VHS and DVDs – $1 per day, maximum $3 per item
• Lost library cards – replacement cards cost $1 each
Further, accounts are blocked from checking out new items once a $10 threshold is crossed. Any accrued fines must also be paid in order to renew an account every two years.
Some public libraries have done away with fines altogether. Others now offer alternatives to them, in particular for any patrons under 21. The Los Angeles County Library System, for example, lets kids read their fines away, at a rate of $5 for every hour spent reading at the library. I really love these kinds of initiatives, as they ensure that kids who simply cannot pay fines will never be discouraged from using the library. One of the policies I inherited at my arts-college library is the “food for fines” option, whereby one can of non-perishable food towards our school’s emergency food pantry — which some of our students definitely rely on — is equal to $1 off a library balance. While it’s pretty rare that my patrons take advantage of this, I really like that it’s at least on the table.
I don’t know what the final answer to these questions is. I think that since every library is different, specific policies cannot and should not be universal; a municipal public library, after all, is quite different from an academic research library. And while I admit that I haven’t abolished fines all together (for now, at least), I strive to make my library as money-free as possible. To that end, I offer a two-month-long library amnesty once a year and also gladly clear any balance under $5 for graduating seniors. Sure, I need to protect our school’s property, but, as mentioned above, my being an active and positive presence on campus through various means of reference and instruction is ultimately going to be much more effective in students’ good use of the library than punishment. To me, any type of monetary transaction in the library should be the very last recourse, if ever.
What is your experience with library fines? Your own feedback as a librarian, patron, or both is greatly appreciated, so please feel free to respond below. Or better yet, find me on Twitter and let’s start a conversation. No bots though, please.
Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.