August 17, 2017

Adversary or Ally? The trouble with fines and fees | Editorial

RebeccaWebEdit2015Last month the Park Ridge Public Library, IL, approved fees for those using the facility for business purposes. On its face, this decision runs counter to the burgeoning interest in libraries embracing a workforce that is increasingly outside the office by developing coworking spaces and gathering essential tools to enable them to succeed. On a deeper level, it runs counter to the ingenuity involved in continually removing barriers to access—even barriers constructed to keep the use of the library fair, such as overdue fines—and this I find much more problematic and worth contemplating.

This got me thinking about the trouble with fees and fines. While many hold that fines, for example, are an incentive to return materials, and fees help pay for stretch services—or, as the Park Ridge example illustrates, intentionally to limit a certain use of the library—one thing is true of both: enforcing them costs resources. People, front and back of the house, have to dedicate time to developing and implementing processes, expanding communications, and paying attention to policing. The return on investment (ROI) is worth examining before instituting a fee or fine since, as has been seen where fines for overdue materials have been removed, the cost of collection can be higher than the revenue gained or the loss offset.

[Note: Several relatively recent examples of libraries giving up overdue fines, and the reasoning behind the decisions, are covered in these local news stories from Albany’s Times Union, The Repository in Canton, OH, and boston.com. If you have recently analyzed overdue fines for your library and opted to give them up or keep them, please share your insights with us at LJ for possible future coverage. Thank you—Ed.]

That’s hard cost, which any library manager and board should have top of mind. Then there are the soft costs, such as how this choice affects the library’s relationship with its community, what it signals about the library’s mission, and if it undermines an effective alliance between the library and the people it serves. Is a precedent being set that threatens to kick off a trend in service—intentional or not? It’s important to bear in mind what such a decision says about the library and will keep saying every time a policy is enforced.

Consider access. When a fee or a fine is present, a level of access is at risk, if not inherently denied. Given the core principal defining the library as a place to be used freely, any policy that limits access should be questioned, or at least designed to be as forgiving and easy to work with as possible.

Consider what it signals about money. Fines and fees are articulated in a budget as revenue, meaning that this income is then dependent upon people misusing the library or, in the case of fees, using it for a limited purpose. It can be hard to give up a revenue line, even one that has poor ROI, if a board doesn’t see the overarching benefit of sacrificing it. Hence, precedent gets set—and set in stone.

There’s also an issue with reinforcing the perception that the library is providing competition to local business enterprises. In Park Ridge, creating a fee structure for business use of the library buys into some idea that the library is taking an opportunity away from the community as a whole, while the truth is just the opposite. One fee threatens to lead to another. For instance, should coding be taught at the library without a fee if others teach it for a fee? I certainly think so. It gets back to access.

Worse, however, fines and fees can confuse the reality that libraries are a shared resource with the misunderstanding that they are a place for free stuff. A fee begs the question: Why charge for one thing but not another? More important, as I have written in my editorial “Worth the Price,” libraries that focus on being about free stuff miss the point. We should be fostering a deeper understanding of the library as something we all invest in (and support financially through taxes) and care for as a community, commanding our ownership and engagement. The message that gets conveyed in a fine-free setting, for example, is that these books (to pick one format) are all of ours, and we’re here to look after them and share them together. This may seem naive, but in settings where fines have been exchanged for donation jars, the goodwill flows.

Ultimately, we must reflect upon our bond with the people libraries are designed to serve. Interactions with patrons can become about the fine or fee, instead of the need addressed by the service. This risks turning librarians and clerks into cops and collection agents and diverting backroom capacity to fee and fine maintenance. In the process, it can set up an adversarial relationship between the library and its users rather than forging an alliance that supports a vibrant interchange. I vote for the library as ally rather than as adversary.

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This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Our library recently tightened down on who pays fees for meeting rooms, and the reason is legal and not ideological. In Iowa, it has been clarified that library meeting rooms fall under the state law that limits use of public resources for private interests. Specifically, the Iowa Constitution prohibits “the use of public property, equipment, or funds for private purposes unless a usage fee is charged” (Article 3, § 31, Iowa Code section 297.9). In other words, commercial use of public meeting spaces must be charged fees to offset the expenses paid by taxpayers (utilities, mostly). Iowa state law also provides that public entities are not to compete with private entities. I’m eager to hear more thoughts on this, because I love the idea of providing totally free open spaces, but obviously we can’t run contrary to the laws that bind us. Thanks!

    • So what is “totally free”? From my experience, the maintenance, booking, and so forth with meeting rooms is fairly costly in terms of staff time. This is time which is not being used for other purposes which could very well be more fundamental in terms of library mission (e.g. RA, collection development/maintence, training). The concept of public entities not competing with private entities is fairly common in this day and age of govt. cutbacks and scrutiny and it focusses the discussion on what is the truly unique role that the library can play in the community. Indeed, this entire issue of LJ is loaded with articles and situations that illustrate the “theory vs. reality” struggle all too well.

    • “The concept of public entities not competing with private entities is fairly common in this day and age of govt. cutbacks”

      Taken to it’s logical conclusion, libraries shouldn’t exist at all then. Everything we do has a private counterpart. Whether its lending books (bookstores, Amazon), providing computer classes, lending DVDs, etc.

  2. jumbo tron says:

    libraries should get back to their roots and charge fees for lending books especially ebooks. its what public libraries back in the 1880ss used to do and we can make it cheap like a quarter per book or something. this will offset their costs and help pay for other stuff like 3d printing and library apps. before anyone gets upset of course we can make it so poor people dont have to pay for these things. and a quarter is still cheap f or people who want to borrow things.

    • How are we to determine who is ‘poor’ and who is not? Are we to track household incomes or audit tax returns? Our communities support public libraries through municipal taxes (or otherwise). It would be unwise to charge for per-book usage.
      Libraries in the 1880’s were not necessarily public, but private endeavors promoted by civic-minded individuals.

    • We already charge a fee for lending books. It’s called taxes.

    • jumbo tron says:

      it’s easy we ask if they are poor. if they say yes then we give them a break if they say no then we dont. this isnt very hard so dont make it harder than it needs to be. we can charge for lending stuff and charge taxes because the taxes mostly cover the salaries and building. the collection budget is usually much smalelr so having people pay for what they borrow makes sense.

    • Wait- so you’re going to tax everyone for the operations cost of the library- but double charge them if they have the audacity to check materials out?

      I’m afraid that doesn’t work.

    • jumbo tron says:

      youre just saying that because ‘we”ve always done it that way’ and that kind of thinking will make libraries obsolete

      we can try

  3. We call our fines “extended use fees”-you get the item free for 2 weeks and after that, since we share the library materials with the whole community and other libraries, you have to pay a small fee to keep an item longer. We like this better than using a collection agency (the Lake Forest Library Board would NEVER use a collection agency-such awful pr). We have an obligation to take care of the public funds entrusted to us and that means making sure materials are returned and shared.

    • Susana Matthews says:

      Kaye, what happens if items aren’t returned? Does the Library Board not care about items being returned?

  4. James McGoran says:

    I agree completely.

    What about fines in school libraries? Curious to hear others thoughts. Does the above hold true there as well?