The story so far
Fines in public libraries were an unquestioned fact of life for over a century, possibly even since lending libraries began. It was something that obviously right and all-pervasive. But that is not the case now. Just like the other cliché of public librarians going shush, the stereotype of the book fine is becoming less true in library service after library service, country after country. So, why? And what are the reasons to fine or not to fine?
Charging a penalty for returning books late serves a number of purposes according to the arguments. It means that people are encouraged to return the book on time, something which is very important especially for popular or rare titles. Without fines, there’d be nothing stopping someone returning a book late, or indeed never, and thus penalising everyone else wanting to read that book. And being library services are never flush with money, they may not be able to purchase another copy, especially if everyone thinks the same way.
In a very real way, therefore, keeping a book late could be seen as the customer breaking an agreement with the library service and with society as a while. Having a library is often the first official mark membership of society to children and such a thing can be used to teach responsibility into young minds. Break the law and pay the price. The old video rental places happily charged late fees and no-one thought the worst of them. Return a hired rowing boat late and you pay extra. It’s natural. And of course it’s fair – everyone knows the fine and those with lower incomes – children, the unemployed, the retired – often have to pay less anyway.
Finally, library services have come to expect a certain percentage of late books anyway. Fines taken in this way amount up to a significant income in some library services. And, of course, any reduction in fines represents a de facto reduction in budget. Not something that already austere library services can easily accept.
Like the library’s opening hours notice on its front door, fines were therefore seen as an open and shut case. Everyone was doing it.
But such uniformity only exists until a library service breaks the mould. Arguments for going fines-free mainly focus around equality and trusting the customer. It’s argued that fines necessarily punish the poor far more than they would the wealthy. What’s an annoyance for the bourgeois represents the cause of anger, shame and parental shouts of “you’re not coming here again” among the poor. And once one library stopped doing fines, and reported that books were being returned on time nonetheless, for many the spell was broken. Trusting the customer turned out to be a workable strategy. And, in a world where there are far more alternatives to libraries than in Victorian times, with traditional usage falling, penalising remaining customers strikes an increasing number of library services as self-inflicted wounds. And, of course, it’s not as if fines free means nothing is charged. Fail to return a book in the most fines-free of fines-free libraries and you’re still going to get charged, or have your usage limited in some way or another.
So now we’re in strange situation where numerous library services, even whole countries like Ireland, have gone fines-free and report no problems, even increased usage, while a greater number of others keep on charging. Indeed, recent debates amongst chief librarians are increasingly not about the wisdom or not of charging but rather how a library service can afford not to charge. The fines-free argument appears to have been won apart from the incredibly important bottom line. The trend at the moment is almost everywhere towards more reductions in fees. But recent times have shown us that assumptions cannot be trusted, and trends can be reversed. It may be that fining will soon be seen as eccentric in the future as not fining once was. Councils, and the reader, must make up their own minds. And library users, as ever, must return their books.
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