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?