Annoyed Librarian
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No Way to Deal with Fines

First, it was libraries using Netflix to get DVDs to library patrons that they libraries were too cheap to buy for themselves. Now it’s libraries trying to be like Netflix. Well, at least one library in California, according to this LJ article.

The Hayward Public Library now has a “three-tier subscription plan” that “allows users to pay a monthly, automated fee in exchange for taking out items on an ‘endless loan.’ For $2.99, three items can be borrowed; for $4.99, five items; for $8.99, ten items.”

Woohoo, what a deal! Or maybe it’s not. For one thing, the selection is nothing like Netflix’s. The library currently has about 9,400 videos. Netflix has tens of thousands of DVD titles. For $9.99/ month subscribers can get one DVD out at a time plus access to the 10,000+ titles available streaming through Netflix Instant. I doubt the library offers streaming video.

Supposedly, it was created a year ago as “a way to alleviate the burden of unresolved fines that was prohibiting about 20 percent of the library’s 100,000 cardholders from borrowing material.” 20%! That seems like a lot of people who can’t use the library because their fines are too high.

The director thought it was a good way to bring lapsed users back to the library. Forgiving fines might have been a better way, because after a year “only a handful of patrons have signed up.” This plan is trying to get money from people who have already shown that they would rather do without library services than pay their fines.

Just doing the math, this library plan doesn’t sound like it’s a good idea. Maybe that’s why hardly anyone has subscribed. Netflix sends DVDs straight to your door and streaming video straight to your computer or television. The library still makes people come in and get videos from a small selection.

So for people who can’t do the math, and who already give up library services to avoid paying fines, it seems unlikely they’d subscribe to this service. And for people who can do the math, it makes much more financial sense to give their money to Netflix. They can still use the library for as many videos as they want because they return items on time.

The headline of the article notes that the program is languishing, and it’s hardly a surprise. It’s not a plan that provides good or innovative service to library users. Instead, it’s designed to get people who don’t pay fines to pay fines before they even check anything out. If they don’t pay them after the fact, why would they pay them before the fact?

The director claims to think that the plan isn’t popular because it’s “ahead of the curve,” but it seems to me that it’s behind the curve. It’s asking people to give money to the library for services that private companies already provide for a better value, and services which the library should either provide for “free” or not at all.

The people with the fines are still paying taxes to support the library, even though they aren’t allowed to use it because of the fines. If the goal isn’t to generate profit, which the director admits, then why not abolish fines altogether, as many libraries have done. The library could still be protected from loss by then billing patrons with severely overdue items for the cost of the item plus processing.

Or the library could do what another California library is doing, accepting food in lieu of fines, which it then donates to the local food bank.

There are various ways to handle this without charging people for something they already pay for. This gets rid of the only incentive to borrow the scratched, sticky DVDs from the public library.

Though this program seems to have been created out of desperation, I wonder if some other library will pick it up and try to promote it as an innovative service. That would be both amusing and sad. No library is going to be able to compete with Netflix, especially when all video is streaming video, which isn’t that far away.

Maybe it would be better for libraries to get out of the entertainment business altogether before they’re forced out by new technology and superior service models. Then they could figure out what they might actually do better than the private sector instead of trying to compete with it.



  1. This also seems to directly oppose the model of equal access that – I hope – all public libraries are built upon. If only those who can or are willing to pay can hoard DVDs because they never want to return them, those who can’t pay don’t have access to them. They’re creating categories of “less” and “more” service based on money. That doesn’t seem very public-library-ish.

  2. “Then they could figure out what they might actually do better than the private sector instead of trying to compete with it.” This line expresses my entire catalog of frustrations with public library services. We don’t have the resources to compete, and we shouldn’t BE competing. Making patrons pay (again) for services is ludicrous and, frankly, makes libraries everywhere look bad. Public libraries need to figure out what we really do and do well.

  3. Librarian Aaron says:

    “Maybe it would be better for libraries to get out of the entertainment business altogether before they’re forced out by new technology and superior service models.”

    Huh? That tired old argument? So this post criticizes the new “service model” Hayward PL is trying out and then says we should get out of the entertainment business altogether? Isn’t entertainment a major service component of public libraries?

    The Fines-Free service at Hayward is for all its material, not just DVDs. It includes all of the materials, including fiction, which is a major entertainment business. So the Netflix comparison should stop, since you can’t stream a a pile of books over the Internet. The Hayward Fines-Free model is extremely interesting if you consider it. The fact that the tiers for unlimited check-out with no due-dates as an option for patrons is one that should be tried out more widely. What is getting in the way of this service model is that it sets a price per tiered service, but how else would Hayward make up for the revenue stream lost without collecting fines? YES, fines are a revenue stream. Anyone who has looked at a public library budget knows this. Perhaps the tiered service at Hayward hasn’t been heavily promoted, which would reflect the slow adoption.

  4. I feel a poster session coming on…

  5. Bob the elder (vs Bob the Younger who may think different) says:

    So a library tries out a new service and it is not too successful. I say good for them!! Maybe more libraries should try new stuff.

  6. ElderLibrarian says:

    Haywood Public Library: What are you guys thinking???

  7. Gentle Peacemaker says:

    How dare you, AL. How dare YOU! I’m getting very tired of you ridiculing public libraries’ materials, policies, and procedures. The only one fighting to stay relevant is you! And you can’t be all things to all people either. SHAME ON YOU!

  8. AL makes a good point that this program is a bad idea. However, in my short time as a reader of this blog, I’ve noticed that she has a tendency to go too far–in this case, “Maybe it would be better for libraries to get out of the entertainment business altogether before they’re forced out by new technology and superior service models. Then they could figure out what they might actually do better than the private sector instead of trying to compete with it.” I can’t think of a faster way for my public system to lose its next tax election (and thus the bulk of its funding) than if it stopped carrying DVD’s and James Patterson books (yes, books are entertainment too). Without its entertainment mission, the public library is doomed to irrelevance and, in many places, oblivion, as there just isn’t enough political will to keep the education mission afloat alone.

  9. And old debate, for sure. But entertainment in libraries is as old as the modern library! If fact it seems the debate was less about entertainment, but just whether the entertainment was moral or not.

    Library Journal, Volume 1, 1876-1877

    “Popular libraries are not established merely for instruction. It is meant that they should give entertainment also. They are regarded as a means of keeping order in the community by giving people a harmless source of recreation. The introduction of novels into a library is eminently a case for discrimination. In my own library we do not leave any places on the shelves for the writings of Mrs. Southworth and Mrs. Stephens. That is to say, we keep the supply of this class of books as low as will be tolerated by the supporters of the library. We follow this course too in regard to light literature of an exciting nature for boys and girls. There must be some sensational books in a public library. Citizens own the libraries, and they demand their presence.”

    Bulletin of the American Library Association, Volume 2, 1908

    “Public library funds are a trust confided to library boards by the property owners of a city for two principal purposes, viz: 1. To diffuse general intelligence and furnish wholesome entertainment for the present generation. 2. And, no less important, to gather and preserve the accumulated experience of our race for the use not only of the present generation but of future generations also. Formerly this second object -— collecting and safely guarding for a select few -— was the main thing. The great libraries of the old world were built up on this plan. The diffusion of general intelligence, providing of wholesome entertainment, is the modern free public library idea. In the administration of library funds neither of these objects should be slighted -— they are both good -— neither should be made to suffer at the expense of the other.

    The Maine Library Association, met on March 12, 1896, among others issues, “To decide wisely and fairly how far any library should go in furnishing entertainment, distinct from instructive reading.”

    Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 13, 1913-1914

    “A public library is truly a part of the educational system of the town. Some folks think it will be your duty to accommodate the public. No! not unless you are doing the public some good! You need to be careful of a book. Kingsley says, ‘Except a living man there is nothing more wonderful than a book.’ But it must be a good book. The world today is full of trashy books, many of them suggestive only of meanness and absolute immorality. There are plenty of high-standard books for the entertainment of people of leisure, without furnishing the debasing dime novel, the lurid and sensational story of the reckless or the lawless. Beware what you put in the hands of boys and girls. There is a general complaint that public libraries are too much given to that which is trifling in the realm of reading — to the time-killing novel, an aid to people who have not much to do -— while the busy man, who wants to know a fact in the least possible time, complains that the public library is not as useful as it might be. I find, however, that in many libraries in different sections of the country, there is a tendency to press down the per cent of fiction, good, bad and indifferent, and make the library an important instrument of public education rather than merely a source of entertainment.”

  10. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    “the lurid and sensational story of the reckless or the lawless” & “the time-killing novel, an aid to people who have not much to do”

    That’s 80% of our patrons, whether retired, jobless, or homeless.

  11. It’s interesting that the director thought she could do what Blockbuster and Walmart failed to do i.e. compete with Netflix.

  12. I agree with Bob that libraries should attempt new services even if they fail at first. Many times projects are halted one step before they take off and become profitable. It is premature to assume a new service does not work because it is not an instant success. In this situation perhaps more marketing is needed? And maybe the “Friends of the Library” could use their influence to get the message out.

    We must come together as a community to support one another, not knock each other down. We already have slashed budgets and dwindling staff. Is it really productive to kill potentially good ideas?

    Think about it.

  13. Gina Dickens says:

    It really does not matter any more what libraries may or may not do. There are always others who can do things better or the way users like better. Libraries try to survivie but I don’t see how. Librarians seem to be so proud of their profession that they cannot accept that the society at large no longer is interested in spending money for libraries. I often hear self-praise from them. Libraries are a service, and when users don’t need it, that’s it. Some say that there is an increasing demand for librarians, but have their salaries been increasing with the “demand”? No. Because there is no demand in fact. Remember librarians: what you do is not what you are, and let it go and find a new career.

  14. Elena1980 says:

    Gina Dickens, bring on the hate.
    I overheard a discussion once from a fellow bed-and-breakfaster at a communal breakfast table. He was complaining about how his College just built a new library. He worked in the athletic department and was upset they didn’t have the funding to build him a new sports complex. His comment, about as simplistic as yours, “Why do they need that new library? Google now has all the books a researcher needs online.”

  15. Techserving You says:

    That program is absolutely ridiculous, and I am surprised at the number of people (or actually, knowing librarians, not that surprised) applauding them for trying something new. I do not understand why so many librarians think that “trying something new” – even if it is obviously idiotic and doomed to fail from the very start – is somehow inherently better than not trying something new… as if merely doing something new is innovative and a superior approach. Perhaps the others libraries which do nothing have considered such stupid plans and decided against them, knowing that they would fail.

    Yes, there are some ideas which are “ahead of the curve” and as such are unsuccessful… the time for them has not yet come. This is not such an idea, as the AL clearly points out. There are programs which are just bad ideas to begin with. This program meets that description, as it’s a program which is already being done so much better by a company. As the AL says, it’s behind the curve. It would be “innovative” if no one else were already doing it, and doing it better. Perhaps some think that people should pay more for an inferior service, all in the name of supporting a library rather than supporting a big, bad corporation, or some nonsense like that?

  16. Glenn Storbeck says:

    We shouldn’t provide what is easily obtainable from the private sector – and dvd’s can be gotten for a dollar from vending machines now. Libraries should have never gone this route; we do have many valuable services (especially public ownership of access to the info world) to offer.

    Again, the biggest threat to libraries is Library Journal and the goofballs in charge……..boooooooo

  17. Randal Powell says:

    I don’t think that the idea is all that bad. As was previously alluded to, Netflix only offers DVDs and streaming video. Netflix DOES NOT offer books, books on CD, computer programs, games, music, or even VHS tapes; many public libraries carry these items and many others.

    I love Netflix. It is a great value for the money. The ability to watch unlimited streaming video (when the cable internet isn’t bogged down) and have a DVD out for as long as I want for such a low price, is truly revolutionary. But this librarian is not trying to compete with Netflix, and to suggest otherwise is either disingenuous or seriously lacking in perception.

    As an intensely curious person (one of too few in the library profession), I would definitely take advantage of this service if it were available at a “large” library nearby. Three bucks a month is a good deal to not have to keep up with three different renewals.

    There are still people around who like movies AND the internet AND other things. Have a long commute to work and want to mix things up with a book on CD or some classical music? Want to learn a programming language or keep a great looking “Wind and the Willows” edition around for your daughter? Or keep a Wii game around until you become bored with it? I can think of many smart professionals who might like this subscription program for any number of reasons, not the least of which the money they would save.

    AL, I agree with you that any technology or tool should be used wisely, and that innovation is not always better than what it replaces, but we must not be so rigid, unimaginative, and pessimistic that people are afraid to tryout plausibly good ideas lest they be publicly ridiculed for falling short.

  18. Ann Hokanson says:

    “why not abolish fines altogether, as many libraries have done”

    We’ve been looking for research on the effects of abolishing fines—and cannot find anything very current—and also have not been able to find the “many libraries” we’ve often heard tell of….because we’d call them up and ask them for their anecdotal evidence…I’m starting to think this is a myth…we’ve found Rangeview, of course, and lots of smaller libraries that don’t have fines on children’s materials….but no studies or statistics….

    As for the long-term outlook for libraries focusing on popular materials—I’m in the grim and grimmer camp as far as the future of libraries goes—-but to me it is a great thing—-the private sector or nongovernmental sector and technology making huge chunks of information so widely and cheaply available that most people have easy ready access…cool! Libraries will still fill in the gaps, I think.

  19. Ann — I have been known to waive fines in most cases. This is partly because our catalog is ancient, buggy, and prone to error, admittedly. I’d like to get rid of them entirely, because their purpose to deter lateness doesn’t work, but that decision is not in my hands.

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