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Libraries are just fining themselves

I've been on the 2 DVD at a time plan with Netflix for, what, seven years or more? And I have not once accrued a fine. Sometimes it takes a month for me to get around to watching one of these discs, but Netflix doesn't seem to care.

Now public and many school libraries do seem to care if I don't get around to consuming the media I have borrowed. I've pretty much stopped checking out print books from public libraries primarily because I hated having a timeline imposed on when I needed to have the book returned. And while the monetary fine was usually fairly modest, the sense of moral failure made my library experience negative.

I was happy to read that some public libraries are rethinking the whole idea of fines. In the Huffington Post, Claire Fallon writes:

The NYPL would be far from the first library system to dump fines for children. New York’s Rochester Public Library made the move earlier this year, as did Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado. Others, like Oak Park Public Library in Illinois and Worthington Libraries in Ohio, already have or plan to eliminate fines for all residents. The key to this experiment, as Todaro explained, is finding ways to maximize access and positive relationships between libraries and patrons.

"Maximizing access and positive relationships between libraries and patrons" is, of course, the goal in this long overdue (pun intended) move. Fines, I'm sure, were motivated by good intentions by our Calvinist forebearers who saw punishment as good for the soul. And a fine is, after all, a form of extrinsic (and ineffective) motivation since a fine is not a direct consequence of a poor choice.

Our recent initiative to get all our students public library cards has as a critical component a no-fine clause. You mean kids can check out books from the public library and not pay a fine if they are late? Yup - just like Netflix.

How then might we encourage responsible use of library materials - in both our public and our school libraries. Some ideas:

Teach the "why" not just the "what" of responsible use. Why is it a good thing to use and return borrowed physical materials? Empathy is required here, but knowing everyone benefits from shared materials, but only when those materials are available is a good understanding to teach. People don't bring their books back to please the librarian, but to benefit other library users.

Set limits to the number of items that can be borrowed. If there are a set number of items one may checkout, the direct consequence of not returning one's materials is not being able to check out more materials. This is how Netflix works, of course. I don't get a new DVD until I return one. My only caution here would be to not let a long time pass without a child being able to get something new because he/she has missing materials - active intervention may be needed. And I would set the max number of items per user pretty high.

Work with the family. A good partnership between parents and the library will go further than any fines. I would start the conversation with something of a positive nature, remind the parents of a no-fine policy, and then ask for their help.

Please remember....

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Reader Comments (5)

The only problem I have with your analogy is that Netflix is not the paragon of borrowing virtue that you make it out to be. They don't care how long it takes you to consume the media that you borrow, because it's charging you monthly for the materials. Now, if you want to start a conversation about the public library instituting a monthly charge for the overall use of materials which is automatically deducted no matter how much or how little you utilize the resources, well, that's something else. But it's at least a closer comparison than a for-profit business vs. the free public library.

May 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLweingarden

Hi L Weingarden,

I agree it is not a perfect analogy. I would argue, however, that as a taxpayer, I do indeed pay an annual cost for library materials and services, and like Netflix, the amount does not increase or decrease by amount of use. (Like the old video store model.)

All the best and thank you for the comment!


May 30, 2017 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

We don't charge late fines at all and now with a new partnership with the public library they don't charge late fines to students either. Only for loss of materials. Unfortunately I can't let students get more than a couple books at a table me because I a) don't want them to be responsible for more than $30 of materials at a time and b) I don't have enough copies of things to let them out indefinitely. But I do try to be flexible and work with them. I don't even send out many late notices and only really work on getting everything back at the end of the year.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJim Randolph

First I need to say I've been "following" and learning from Doug Johnson for decades. I'm a high school librarian who is conflicted by fine policies, and pieces like this one help me evaluate mine regularly. Thanks again. We charge $1.00 after a 30-day grace period. Somehow a $1.00 that doesn't increase or involve pocket change seems to eliminate resentment. And we do a yearly blitz of all the English classes to explain the philosophy behind the weekly notices. This scheme has been working for us (and our students) for years. Our lower schools don't charge any fines, and they struggle with checkout restrictions. I sometimes come back to the analogy of not loaning a little kid a pencil in math because he lost one yesterday. We big-hearted librarians keep doing the best we can.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDonna Cook

Hi Jim,

Knowing you, I have absolute faith you put as many books in as many kids hands as humanly possible!


Thank you for the message, Donna. For what it's worth, your policy would certainly not discourage me from checking out a book from your library!


June 2, 2017 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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