Monday, April 9, 2007

To Fine Or Not To Fine

Overdue fines are the Scarlet Letter of librarianship. To my mind, billing patrons for the late return of materials has at least a tinge of public shame to it. The patron has been Bad, therefore he or she needs to be Punished. (Note that I am here only discussing overdue fines for late items, not a bill for the replacement cost of unreturned items -- a different matter altogether.) I know there is a lot more to library fines than just punishment. Two of the valid arguments that I have heard for library fines are that they ensure the equitable sharing of library items (no one person can hang on to them forever), and the fine revenue itself often can fund small improvements to the library that benefit everybody in the long run. (Here are two questions for you: Does your library get to keep the fine money, or does it go into an institutional coffer? If you have to bill a student through their student account, does the money make its way back to the library once collected?)

Every public library that I have ever been in has charged overdue fines; academic libraries seem to be increasingly ambivalent in their attitudes towards fines. The overhead of collecting and receipting (and arguing about) fines often is not justified by the amount collected. Many academic libraries seem to feel that it is less bother to simply withhold transcripts and diplomas until all items are returned and not sweat the day-to-day overdue items.

The whole fine process does highlight how patrons generally sort out into organized and disorganized (alternatively organized?) categories. A goodly number of the organized sort never even incur fines because their materials are always returned or renewed in time. When they do (gasp) incur a fine, they come to the library immediately to pay their $0.40. Those who are alternatively organized regularly incur fines, often in staggering amounts that would show up as visible pie wedges in their Quicken charts if they were ever to make use of a product like Quicken. Please note that this is not an indictment of the alternatively organized -- I have met enough of them to recognize that something like a library fine is just not a Big Hairy Problem to them, and they return their items when they are ready and then pay any fines owed.

There is, though, a subcategory of library patrons who resent being punished for late materials and who work very hard to get any and all fines excused or reduced. These patrons can be in either the organized or alternatively organized category -- I have heard long and complicated explanations of why someone should not be charged $0.20. When this combative personality type overlaps the alternatively organized category, though, librarians encounter some of their thorniest patron problems. Especially if the person in question is a faculty member. The legacy of unreturned items, multiple billing notices, and account blocks is further demonstration of the 80/20 rule -- 20% of your patrons will cause 80% of your billing problems.

In a theological library, I have often felt that there is also a pastoral function to charging overdue fines. It is one way to identify the combative personality type where what is at the heart of the matter is not a question of who returned what when but a question of whether someone is willing to submit to another authority, even as puny an authority as the seminary librarian. When faced with the seminary student who rails against a fine, my response is often to overlook the fine while asking the patron to reflect more closely on his or her calling. That may or may not be a good enough reason to continue the practice of charging overdue fines, but it remains a fairly effective litmus test.


Eric said...

A timely post, Blake - I'm dealing with a patron right now who has a prima facie hefty fine that I would radically reduce if he would just come in and talk to me. Instead he's sending letters, copied to the dean of course, blaming the library for the situation: our fines are excessive; our application of fines is flawed; our fines are purely punitive; our notices are snail mail instead of e-mail; our notices are on paper that's too generic (I'm not making this up); we don't take the time to give patrons a courtesy telephone call before they start to incur fines. All belligerence and no humility. It's a challenge.

Blake Walter said...

And we have received complaints that because our renewal reminders go out by email the patron does not receive a paper reminder. (We can, of course, adjust that when asked.) You will never please everybody 100% of the time.