Friday, September 7, 2018

Fines and fees

One of the more surprising developments in my 24 years of library work has been the devaluation of books and other library materials. I am not talking about the more ballyhooed demise of materials, still constantly overforecast after maybe 15 years of constantly inaccurate predictions mainly based on overvaluing of E-books and streaming. I'm talking about the ubiquity of books, lack of space for more books in libraries, and a market flood of books and other media that decreases their value to the point that, for instance, Little Free Libraries can spring up and marginally function everywhere because no one has enough incentive to raid them for easy money at their local used book store.

I'm simply saying that books are not what they once were. We are forced to weed good ones.We have too many, and we're usually not too stressed out about being able to buy the new ones we need.

This is not just my library. And though surely it is not every library by any means, it reflects a general trend.

I think that this devaluation is a driving force behind another trend in library land, the end of late fees.

With a softer demand for library materials, less hunger for that as a revenue source (which we used to apply to acquisitions anyway), and a growing interest in appealing to patrons in as many ways as possible, many systems have done away with that great titan of library culture, the library fine.

Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with the end of late fees.

First, virtually every system who has enacted this policy has, well, lied. At some point a missing book has to go to "lost". All the "no fines" systems I know of allow for the return of the book in lieu of lost charge, but they all charge a late fee. Oh, they don't call it a late fee, it's usually a "notification fee" or a "processing charge".

It's a late fee. It's just a bigger one only applied to very late books, nevertheless it is what it is.

Second, let's say you want a book from your library. You request it, but you have to wait four fucking months for someone to bother bringing it back. That happens far more often in a "no late fee" environment.

I'm not saying I am against a "no late fee" policy (without any secret fees), but it has its own set of problems.

I do have a solution. It is a very good one, but it is likely no one will adopt it because, well, it's odd. I can't do anything about that, never have been able to. It is my curse. But I'll tell you my solution anyway.

At my library we have a status for certain patrons. It is called "fine free". It is for people, generally speaking, who are not really competent, for various mental, psychological, and cognitive sorts of reasons, at handling the whole issue of late fees, timely returns, and proper library account management. We don't usually tell them about their user status. They still worry about their returns, and their due dates, and getting fines, but they never do get fines, so we don't get bogged down in those fines that they often can't pay or fully understand anyway.

As I have grown more and more understanding of people in a library setting I have applied this status more and more often, to more and more people. Finally, yesterday, it came to me:

This describes everyone.


Do this for everyone. Just don't tell them.

And I offer one last anecdote in support of my idea:

Many years ago we had a security system that required us to check out all books for patrons and when finished hand them to the people on the other side of the security gates. In this long ago era there was no such thing as turning security tags off. They were always on. But slowly our security system started failing in (loud) bits and pieces until finally we shut it off and never turned it on again. But we continued to pass books around and act as if the system worked perfectly. All the patrons feared and respected it.

Now, and for many years, we have had a security system that works very well. Alarms sound, tags can be turned on and off, people are chased down or return to the desk. Everything is monitored.

The old system, the broken, pretend version, worked roughly as well as the new one.

And it was less noisy.



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