Fines: Worth the Cost?

Thanks to OCLC Next Space Newsletter Dec 2006

A few libraries we’ve worked with during recent years have reviewed their approach regarding fines and decided that fines aren’t “fine” at all. These libraries have determined that “revenue” generated from fines just doesn’t compensate for the negative image associated with penalizing clients, the stress front-line staff endure dealing with those penalized clients, plus the staff time allocated to tracking down late items.

Yep, I said “penalizing clients”. Hm….let’s consider that for a moment. Fines are a penalty for not returning items at the time agreed to (otherwise known as the “due date.”) In some public libraries fines for overdue items are charged even when the item is finally returned; this is to cover staff time spent following up on the item, and to discourage the client from returning items late again. In some post-secondary libraries students cannot receive their grades or graduate until all fines are cleared. There’s logic here — the student is in possession of the university/college property, and all loans for any property must be returned or paid off prior to receiving degrees or diplomas. The loan is a point of leverage.


I’m not suggesting that these policies or fines are wrong; I am suggesting that libraries do some critical, strategic thinking about the purpose, cost and implications of fines. Particularly as digital items replace physical items.

What’s the implication of withholding marks and diplomas pending payment? Will the student then want to be an alumni who contributes towards the institution or the library? Do we know? And the implication of public library fines? Will the individual or family discontinue using the library for fear of late fines? Especially those in low-incomes? Do we know? What are the costs to the library, in terms of staff time, staff stress at dealing with irate patrons, and a punitive image? Do we know? Many libraries rely on the revenue realized from fines to fund an initiative or activity. Does the income from the fines offset the tangible and intangible costs? Do we know? We need to know.  How will fines be handled in the digital environment? We need to fully understand this issue and determine how best to deal with it. Yes, there will sometimes be exceptions to the rule; there will be patrons who incredibly abuse the lending system. Policies can deal with the rare cases – once we know the real situation, implications, and costs.

Some libraries eliminating fines have experienced a difficulties with some staff accepting the change in policy. Some staff, not all, feel that the library is accountable for the items purchased with public or institution monies; they argue that those not returning items are responsible for the cost. They have a valid point; so, too, do those who argue that the staff cost and client anger isn’t worth it. The diverging opinions on this topic among staff causes conflict. And we don’t need conflict over this issue. Once we’re clear on the real costs (net costs that is) and implications of fines, then we can determine if fines are a part of the library’s culture or not, and if the fine policy makes sense (or cents! Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Has your library examined the various costs, considerations & outcomes of fines? Are they fine?

4 comments to Fines: Worth the Cost?

  • My library has what I consider to be reasonable fines for students that are designed to prevent abuse. We give them ample opportunities to renew books, but if they don’t and return them late, then they get fined. Often books are in demand by other classmates, so the fine encourages students to not hoard materials. Same goes for study rooms, laptops, and other limited resources. As long as they share, no one gets fined. When they stop sharing, they get fined. At a certain point, the fines total up, and if they get to that point, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to put a hold on their accounts. (For what it’s worth, the library doesn’t get the fine money unless it’s for replacing lost or broken material — it all goes in to the general fund.)

    • Rebecca Jones

      Thanks Anna. Very helpful. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not against fines…..I’m pondering, as I think all organizations should, about how best to manage the client relationship when items or study rooms or laptops or whatever property/asset is not available for another client. And the policy of prevent abuse is very reasonable. Thanks for adding to this conversation — very much appreciated!

  • Dee Magnoni

    We don’t have overdue fines at Olin College of Engineering. However, if a book is not returned by graduation, we do charge a replacement cost. We have found that most lost books come from students working in teams. One person checks out a title and everyone shares the book. No one, then, seems to know where the book finally rests. We’ve tried to help teams by allowing them to check out books to study carrels. This allows everyone to use titles while keeping them in a known central location. We do also put out calls for the return of a title that is needed for someone else when it’s been checked out for quite a while. Our honor code helps keep the community highly responsible. We are fortunate.

  • We implemented fines in a county subscription law library, where clients paid a membership fee and we let them borrow our print collection. The fines were an effective way to eliminate our overdue book list – and avoid having to treat titles as lost and repurchase them at $100s or $1000s per title. We charged $1 per item per business day.

    They were initially unpopular with heavy borrowers. In the end, they became a non issue and we collected very few fine dollars. It was a successful deterrent, however, as our overdue book list shrunk to a handful, we weren’t purchasing replacement titles, and we saved a staff hours in managing the overdue list. It helped that we had a collection that, for professional purposes, most lawyers needed to be able to access and so being unable to borrow was an impediment to their efficiently running their practice.

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