The Fine Line: Ethical and Intellectual-Freedom Implications of Charging Our Patrons

Access, Library Bill of Rights, Policies, Professional Ethics

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.

Crowdsourcing Consensus

Library Due datesI 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:

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 SarwarkRobert 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.


  • I’m a library technician at a Community College library. Mixed feelings about fines. I do think fines are helpful in making sure that items are returned so that other users can access them. We have some textbooks available at the library. These books are in high demand, as there are many students who would prefer not to buy the book if they can get away with it. Sometimes the hold list gets into the double digits. Without the fines, students would keep the books out until the end of the semester thereby depriving others from using this resource. The argument that users will return items in order to get other items doesn’t hold water in situations where the user only wants the one item.

    On the other hand, I remember when I was away for university and I took a book out of the public library and was negligent about returning it on time. Very negligent, as I ran up a fine of $10 (this was over 25 years ago – you could have bought a house for that!). I returned the book at night in the drop box and and resolved to never use that public library system again, reasoning that I was finishing at the end of the year and would be moving back home. I stuck to that, despite receiving letters from the library threatening me with a collection agency if I didn’t repay the fine. So in that case, the fine didn’t prevent me from keeping the book out, but it did prevent me from ever borrowing from that library again. So it can cut both ways.

    As an enthusiastic library patron (different public library, I’m more careful now), I can tell you from my own experience that the fines ensure that I return items promptly. If I get out a stack of materials I could just let them collect until I’ve finished with them all, but I’m encouraged to return them promptly and keep on top of renewals to ensure that I don’t accumulate fines. This keeps the books and other items in circulation, and keeps me honest. It also lets other users have access to them. Compare that with books that I take out from the college, where I get to make my own due date – those can hang around at home for quite awhile before I get around to actually reading them. If someone needs them, they’d have to wait until I finished with them. I don’t borrow items with a hold list, and our literature section almost never checks out, but still, the books are out of circulation until I get done.

    So I think fines have their place, as long as they are not too onerous.

    One thing our local public library does is charge for holds that are not picked up. It’s $1 per item. If you aren’t going to be able to get in and pick it up, you can cancel it with no penalty even if it’s already on the hold shelf, but if you let it go past its’ pickup date, you pay. I don’t know if that penalty is common or if it’s just at our system, but if does prevent you from putting a lot of stuff on hold and then just forgetting about it.

  • I am the director of a small-town library. We went fine free 2 1/2 years ago. ( We still charge for lost or damaged items.) We find that we actually get things back more promptly. It seems that people who owe fines tend to procrastinate, in spite of that causing the fine to increase. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with being able to get more books, as our limit is crazy high to accommodate home schooling families. I’m pretty sure that most people relate to the library based on some childhood inculcation of late fine shaming. Some patrons get really worked up and apologetic, only to be greatly relieved when we tell them that there are no fines. As a library patron, accumulating fines has never really affected my returning habits. I mostly return on time but I can afford to pay a few bucks every once in a while. But I grew up with a fine-free library and don’t have to go through a whole shame cycle.

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