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Is the lifting of library fines long overdue?

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2006


Irina Freyman regularly patronizes several suburban libraries west of Boston. But her favorite is the red-brick Dover Town Library, in part because it offers an unusual advantage: no fines for overdue materials.

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"It's not the money, it's just inconvenient to pay fines if I've left my purse in the car," says Ms. Freyman as she and her family head for the checkout desk on a Saturday afternoon. "They're also friendlier here."

Convenience and friendliness were two goals Dover librarians had in mind when they eliminated fines seven years ago. What they have lost in revenue - between $3,000 and $5,000 a year - they say they have gained in goodwill. "Young families borrow a great deal of items," says Kathy Killeen, director. "They've got a lot of pressure on them. If they're a week behind, they don't have to pull out their wallet. It just takes that onerous element of libraries out of our exchanges with people."

To fine or not to fine? As libraries face competition from the Internet, Amazon, and bookstores, some are looking for ways to be more customer-friendly. At the same time, book-lovers point to Netflix and Blockbuster, which have eliminated fines for overdue movie rentals, and suggest that libraries do the same.

Yet tight municipal budgets are making many libraries more dependent than ever on revenue from fines - so dependent that some even hire collection agencies. Defenders of library fines also note that Netflix can recoup losses through monthly fees and Blockbuster with "restocking" charges.

Killeen is quick to acknowledge that Dover's policy would not work everywhere. But for this pastoral town of 6,000, she says, it succeeds. "It takes an incredible amount of staff time to collect 50 cents, to monitor it, and send out notices. We weighed the actual costs of collecting fines against the revenue brought in and decided it was kind of a wash."

In Westford, Mass., Ellen Rainville, director of the no-fines J.V. Fletcher Library, calls fines "basically a negative, punitive transaction you have with patrons over and over." Far preferable, she says, are "positive transactions that don't have that whiff of the old ... judgmental and reproving environment that many people associate with their childhood library."

Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton (N.J.) Public Library and president-elect of the American Library Association, defends fines. "People understand that it's part of the way our institutions do business," she says. "It recognizes that when somebody takes an item out from the library, they're entering into a contract to take it out for a certain period of time. When they decide to keep it out longer than that, they pay a fee."

Ms. Burger dislikes the word fines, preferring late fee. "Fines indicate that you're being punished. It's hardly equivalent to speeding. Late fee implies a different attitude. It doesn't say to people, 'You're bad, you kept your book out too long.' "

Yet she acknowledges the need to tailor library policies to fit certain needs. "We need to be more flexible because not everybody has the means to pay. In some communities, fees work as a barrier and keep people away." The Public Library Association and the Association of Library Services to Children are asking libraries to reconsider card policies that keep low-income teens away for fear of fines.