Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Being Creative with Fine Alternatives

The New York Times had a heartwarming human interest story about libraries last week on ways libraries are avoiding charging fines so as not to penalize people who charge out library books and then irresponsibly return them late or not at all.

Some especially touchy-feely libraries are just having amnesty days or weeks where they let people bring books back and continue using the library without paying fines. They want to increase access to information, which is supposedly one of the goals of a library, but if another is to have actual books available, I’m not sure that’s the best way to go.

Some are allowing people to donate food instead. The librarians are then giving the food to local shelters instead of eating it themselves, unless people donate chocolate or brownies, in which case they go straight to the break room.

There must be other ways to deal with criminally negligent patrons other than just forgiving them or forcing them to be charitable in order to check out recent CDs to rip for their iPods.

Libraries could just develop the Netflix model. I know some libraries are delivering books to people, but I’m not talking about that. The library would just say to everyone, "Keep the books as long as you like!" That’s what a library with a perennial amnesty policy is essentially saying anyway. Netflix limits how many DVDs you can have at a time, though.

(I mean, unless you pay for multiple accounts. Personally, I have seven subscriptions so I can have a month’s worth of DVDs all out at the same time. Unfortunately, I think I’ve had the same DVDs since June, but I’ll have a chance to watch them after I retire.)

Libraries would have to do something like that. Maybe patrons can check out four adult books and ten children’s books. Then they can just keep them forever, maybe even willing them to their children’s library account so they can keep them forever. The library would be completely empty, but think of all that information people would have!

Or libraries could have the patrons do something instead of just cleaning out their cupboards and forcing occupants of the local shelters to dine on cranberry sauce and condensed milk for a month. They could have patrons volunteer, for example. Make ’em go shelve those books it took them ten months to return. Or force them to check out books to other patrons, and make sure the other patrons’ hands are so full of books they have to carry their library cards in their mouths and grunt for the clerk to grab it from their drooling lips (as I saw happen in a public library last year.)

Or else they could combine such services with Library Spa 2.0. From the Library Spa 2.0 press release:

"When you come into a "Library Spa 2.0" library, you are automatically treated like a minor deity. Librarians and library staff always talk in private about how much they worship the publics they serve, but now we’re going to show it!

"When you enter, you will immediately be escorted to you own private patron pod, where you will be given a full-body massage by our Massage Librarian–Big Leela. While you’re getting your shoulders mauled and your tushie pounded by Big Leela, another professional librarian will kindly fetch any library materials you may need. Merely tell the Fetching Librarian your desiderata and she will fetch it, whether it’s the latest best-seller by Patricia Cornball or "that big green book I was looking at last time."

"If you want to surf the Internet for porn or business news or whatever it is you like, the Laptop Librarian will bring the ALFL laptop and hold it under your face while you are getting your massage.

"In a couple of weeks we’ll be adding facials, manicures, and high colonics. We expect our user statistics to soar!

"Our most frequent reference question is always ‘Where’s the restroom?’ Well, no more hunting for the restroom for ALFL ‘customers.’ In case ‘nature calls’ while you’re getting your massage and you don’t feel like moving, we provide plenty of bedpans, and we don’t mind emptying them.

Not every library can afford that level of service, and there’s only one Big Leela, but now librarians could have wayward patrons go fetch books and empty bedpans.

It’s likely that these offerings won’t be as popular as flat out amnesties or donating decades-old cans of creamed corn, but it’s still working with irresponsible patrons to help them help keep their access to information. In addition, making those patrons work for something might teach them responsibility, which apparently they never learned as children, and that would be good for them in all sorts of ways. Not only might they start returning library materials on time once they see how annoying it is to work in a library, but they can also learn to corral their screaming children and wash the peanut butter and jelly off their hands before they handle that library DVD.

Libraries have barely begun to explore creative ways to deal with these scofflaws.




  1. loudmouthedlibrarian says:

    I once had a lady pull her library card out from her bra and try to hand it to me. Now that was classy! I kindly asked her to hold her own card under the barcode sensor.

  2. Yes, by all means let’s stifle creativity!

    We might as well let the people who are going to keep the books just keep them. After all, people are reading the internet now, who cares about books. Who cares about the children who can’t check out books because their parents rack up huge fines checking out videos.

    Just remember this phrase and all will be right with the world: “But we always done it that way!”

  3. LadyBossyBoots says:

    The problem with asking patrons to volunteer to work off fines is that a bad/unmotivated volunteer makes twice as much work for staff.

    Not that all “delinquent” patrons would make sub-par volunteers, but as a volunteer coordinator, my experience with mandatory volunteering is that the signal to noise ratio is pretty high.

  4. Display name says:

    Books are dead. The more the patrons keep at home the less I have to deal with them and can concentrate on the future of information.

  5. Our library has done Food for Fines for quite a while and it’s very successful – the local food pantry loves the extra food they get, it’s nice PR for us and patrons can get $1 off their fines for each item donated – which, if you play your cards right and bring in inexpensive canned goods, lets the patron come out ahead.

  6. Do you REALLY want patrons shelving books to work off their fines? Just sayin’…

  7. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    Want to register for classes or get a transcript? Both of those are a big “No!” if you owe the library money. Or have outstanding parking tickets for that matter …

  8. Late and lost fees/fines are accounts receivable (A/R). Replacement costs of un-returned inventory is accounts payable (A/P). I’m not comprehending here the computation mechanism employed by a library’s bookkeepers/accountants which would cause its ledger books to balance out monthly/quarterly/annually given this calculating practice. Are the cans of food recorded as in-kind value equivalents to the cost of the lost/unreturned items? Do the receiving pantries render receipts and are these booked? Are the patrons’ accounts then reduced to zero, erased from the books, and the ledgers re-adjusted? I’m just not understanding how this adds up; is this the “new math”? Please do inform and enlighten. I truly am not understanding this; how does the fiscal office balance its accounts in this manner?

  9. Ostensibly generous, this practice is -in fact- insidiously asinine. Crediting slothful patrons’ accounts while debiting your acquisitions and collection development accounts is fundamentally harmful and represents asset loss (in the long- and short-terms). Charity begins at home.

  10. The purpose of fines is to provide a disincentive to discourage patrons keeping materials longer than they should. We’re a public library and all of our fine money goes directly to the town’s coffers…not to our acquisitions budget. My town manager wants us to increase fines so they we can generate more revenue for the town. I think it would be a gas to send cans of okra and green beans to the treasurer’s office.

  11. Hippieman says:

    Why not let the bankersters and greedy capitalists foot the bill for fines? They’ve stolen our money anyway.

  12. Dr. Brooks says:

    I don’t see any hospitals giving health care for cans. Here is the problem, most libraries have a collection agency at work, hence there is no way to stop it for any special promotions such as this.

  13. We use a collection agency and still have done this. We simply state that anything turned over to collection is exempt from the amnesty. And I had permission from the City Manager to do it, so when the finance guy questioned it I simply told him to talk to the City Manager and he dropped it.

  14. anonymous says:

    Or maybe, just maybe, people could bring the books back on time…? Just a thought.

  15. I just had to pay a whopping fine on a library book Friday. I came with my checkbook, prepared to pay, and when the librarian noticed the book was on libraries (I brought the book in, as I had moved, and didn’t even know I still had it until I unpacked all my books from storage), she asked me about it. I told her I was an MLIS student, and had checked it out a few years ago when I was researching the job, before applying for library school. She laughed as I wrote out the check and said, “Just think of it this way– you’re ensuring your future salary!” If you make use of resources, and abuse them, shouldn’t you have to pay in order to make sure those resources are still there to use (or abuse)?

  16. Our library had a food for fines promotion during December. It only worked on late fines, not lost book charges. Some people bring in one can of tuna for about $40 in fines… some bring a grocery bag for $2.

  17. Miss Gruntled says:

    We stopped charging overdue fines because we discovered that the fines revenue wasn’t coming back to the library at all – it was simply going into some nebulous fund way above our heads. But we had to go to all the trouble of billing. Fuggedabout it! Now patrons get automated “your book is overdue” emails warning about what comes next. And what comes next is that after they’ve had the book for something like three months, they get a bill for replacement costs. That usually prompts them to bring it right in.

  18. Patrons to volunteer – basically it’s OK. But why for fines? Why not because they just love being heplful? Because they do! They are so nice and enthusiastic and ready to please the librarian. 30 times a day I have to ask them NOT to put back the books onto the shelves. Pleeease… At least not onto THAT shelf. Go away form that bookshelf, will ya?! LEAVE THAT BOOK!!! To tell the truth, I hate just bossing them around. Why frighten those nice people instead of accepting their kind help? “Do It Yourself” libraries would make both patrons and librarians happy, relaxed and satisfied. All of us would become better persons, I am sure. Anyone to join?

  19. MISTER Clean says:

    In my library, you work off fines.

    If you are late with a book, you have to clean the bathrooms.

    If you are late with a DVD or something really valuable, you have to clean the staff refrigerator.

    We get 100% on-time returns.

  20. littleoldme says:

    At our library we “check out” the computers like a book and if a patron has a late fee them they cannot use the computers. The only problem I have with this is seeing the unemployed that cannot afford their bill of late charges not get to use a computer to look/apply for jobs. We also have people that come in that had a card as a child and the parents failed to return the books so they cannot use the computers for class work (college). I understand wanting to get our books back but I also see that damage it is doing to our community. After all, The gates Foundation put them here to give equal access to everyone and feel that there are better ways to deal with the late fee issues.

  21. littleolyou says:

    wah wah wah.

    You can’t pay your bills, you can’t have the services.

    If the people don’t have money, have them work off the fines.

    Scrubbing toilets is one good solution.

    We are not communists.

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