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Life Lessons @ Your Library

This came up a wee bit a few weeks ago when I suggested that making children work off overdue fines wasn’t the best way to make them want to use the library.

Apparently the Free Library of Philadelphia also thinks fines can be a problem, because they want to make sure fines don’t keep children from being able to get books.

Under a new policy, “the library would no longer prohibit children who have outstanding fines from borrowing materials so long as they do not have any overdue books or other materials.”

A spokesperson said “the change was being introduced to get more children to visit libraries in the summer, noting the ‘learning loss’ among children during summer break. He said another goal was to have every public and charter school student in the city get a library card.”

Those seem like worthwhile goals for a library.

However, there’s some resistance from three City Council members and one disc jockey, and that kind of massed power might put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The Council members have introduced a bill designed to teach the little kiddies a “life lesson,” because that’s what libraries are for. The bill would stop the policy of letting children with fines check out library books, and states that “it’s important that all patrons, especially including the young, learn that there are consequences for irresponsible behavior such as the loss or late return of borrowed materials.”

“Teaching children responsibility for their actions is a key part of the measure,” because “‘when children are taught that they don’t need to return their library books or they can hold onto library books for as long as they want and not have to pay any fine as a result, the councilman thinks that sends a bad message to kids.’”

The Council members are also upset at the potential loss, or rather the lack of gain, of $70,000 from the fines. Out of a library budget of $40 million, that doesn’t seem like much, especially if the library really could avoid “learning loss” in the summer among children who probably have little enough incentive to read over the summer as it is.

There are all sorts of reasons to have overdue fines. They help get people to return items, and they can help fund library projects. But are they really there to teach life lessons?

Seems like mission creep to me. The goal of public libraries is to get children reading and promote literacy, not teach life lessons, and certainly not with fines.

If libraries wanted to teach children life lessons, they could bring in a life lessons coach to go along with the psychologists and social workers that libraries also apparently need.

For the sort of kids for whom library fines are prohibitive, what’s more important, that they read, or that if every library book they check out isn’t returned on time they won’t be able to check out any more?

If children with any fines were banned from checking out books, the life lesson they’d learn is that even libraries aren’t there for them. It’s not enough to be able to use the materials in the library because they library isn’t open all the time.

So that’s the question. Should libraries be in the business of teaching life lessons or supporting childhood literacy?

And if you say they can do both, what happens when a conflict occurs? Let’s say a child has $5 in fines she can’t afford to pay and is then only allowed to read when her branch of the library happens to be open?

Look at the list of branch hours. Lots of them are closed on the weekends and at 5 many weekdays. Is that really a substitute for checking out a book and being able to read it at home? What’s more important for poor children: reading or the dubious life lesson of library fines?

I have a feeling those are not the kind of questions the Council members proposing this bill have ever had to ask themselves.



  1. Andrew Sherman says:

    I think the bigger issue is their hours. Their locations should be closed on at least one weekday so they can all be open on a weekend day.

    • Half of the branches do close on Fridays so they can be open on Saturdays. The other half are open Monday-Friday. Closing any day other than Friday isn’t an option because after-school programs run out of the libraries Monday-Thursday. I’m sure nobody would like it if all of the libraries in the city were closed on Friday, so this is their best compromise to provide weekend hours since they don’t have the staff to provide six day a week service.

  2. M. Godzilla says:

    I’ve worked in a public library for years, in both those with and without fines. Personally, I despise fines. At my non-fine library, as long as a patron doesn’t have any “lost” books, i.e. over 2 months overdue, we let them take out books. (And we hold the books for them if they have lost books). What I found at the “fines” library (when I was a circulation clerk) was that some people got their fines erased and some didn’t. Some clerks were lenient and some weren’t. To be honest, I would usually let kids take out books, warning them that there were fines on their card, and this was “the last time.” But some would completely stick to the rules, sending kids away without books. It made me want to cry. I really hated being in that position of taking books out of an eager child’s hands, or even an adult for that matter. For some people, $5 may not seem like a lot, but when it’s a kid or a senior citizen, or someone who is unemployed, it’s the difference between them loving the library or never visiting your library again.

    • I agree with the three city council members. We need to take a hard line with these kids and teach them a real lesson. They’ve taken advantage of our free library books and lenient circulation policies for far too long. It’s time for things to change.

      I would like to propose that not only should these delinquents’ checkout privileges be revoked until their fines are paid but for each dollar in fines they accrue, they should be required to perform a day’s hard labor, preferably sweeping chimneys, preferably mine.

      That’ll teach ’em a life lesson or two.

  3. The library I currently work at has fines, but they max the fines out for each book, and as long as the patron does not have more than 15 dollars in fines they can check things out. That being said, sometimes some kids do have a lot of fines, but this is not just for overdue books and is a replacement fee for lost or damaged books. In addition, we allow the children to take the book out with their parents. I am not saying that one system is better than another, but I also want to think about the people who want to read the book but can’t because someone else has the book sitting in a pile for the last 3 months.

    • M. Godzilla says:

      I do agree with “c says,” but our system does eventually block a patron for “lost books” and it doesn’t matter how much the book costs. If it’s over two months late, they can’t take out anything unless it’s paid or brought back. My issue is more with the fines, which is why we don’t charge any. Maybe people do get casual returning things here, but with the ease of interlibrary loan in our system, the patron that’s been waiting for a book for the past two months could have requested the book easily from another library.

  4. I work in Interlibrary Loan in a public library. It is not always so easy to borrow another book, many libraries have policies that prohibit borrowing the book from another library (unless it is from a different branch in the system) if they already own it. In addition, subscribing to certain sites such as OCLC means that there is a hefty price the library pays. I think in our library for OCLC it ends up costing quite a bit for each book. Anyways, it really does depend on the library, and the state one lives in as well. CT has CCAR and I believe Texas has a similar system in place. (Not really sure about other states, although I am sure there are more). Plus, if those books are returned late, the lending library often places a hold on the borrowing library which means that other patrons cannot borrow any books through interlibrary loan from that particular library.

  5. Rebecca B. says:

    Our small library has fines for most things at 5 cents a day, and we will allow checkouts up until the fines hit $15. As long as they keep it below $15 they can check out materials. Furthermore, it’s very obvious that when life-lessons are given, it’s the parents teaching the children about responsibility. I fully support the parents who talk their child through what the fine is and why it’s there, and then that the child must take the 5 cents out of his/her allowance. I’ve had more 10 cent fines paid off with this sort of solemn lesson that the *parents* choose to teach.

    The other thing that we do, which I love, is that quarterly we have a “food for fines” program where we’ve partnered with a local food shelter to help our community. People with fines can bring in non-perishable items and for each one they get $1 off of their fines (up to $30). We help patrons with a “deal” on their fines, and they get to directly help their own community. I’m not so much for libraries being the teachers of these sorts of life lessons for children, but I do like showing the community and its children that we care about them on many levels.

  6. Noah Fence says:

    fines at our local accumulate very quickly and therein lies the problem. I’ve seen countless accounts left inactive after incurring insignificant fines. adult accounts are no different. after years of strict policing of this policy we have effectively alienated droves of good folks in our small town. I have no problem detering those who lose multiple items; there should be accountability. as we struggle to maintain circulation levels we might consider that fines become an impediment for many perhaps for different reasons..

  7. The library can easily combat this. Make the fine thresh hold that kids won’t be able to checkout books at $100. Than they can tell the city council they got rid of the policy. What makes this especially ridiculous is that most of the time an overdue book is the parent’s fault, not the kids. So who are we really teaching responsibility to?

    Sorry eight-year old little Jimmy! I’m sorry you can’t drive a car but you should have walked that mile on the busy Philadelphia streets to return your book! No summer reading for you! This is what happens when local politicians try to get involved in every issue. The library board and director were chosen and hired for a reason. Let them do their jobs and stop with the micromanaging. Philadelphia really doesn’t have any other problems more suitable for the city council to tackle?

  8. anonymous says:

    I thought libraries were measured in part on how much gets checked out. Well, Netflix found out that the way to get more stuff checked out is to drop late fees, penalties, due dates and everything else. Get a couple of movies, watch them, send them back and get a couple of more. Guess what? Inventory turns skyrocketed. If libraries have dormant accounts do to outstanding fines, those people aren’t checking out books.

    If there are no due dates and no late fees, then there is no “lesson” to teach. The library model should be simple. Check out a book or two and read them. Bring them back and you can check out a couple more. Simple. And as Netflix found out, pretty effective.

    • Paigers says:

      Except that Netflix charges a monthly fee for unlimited checkouts (of a certain number of items at a time). Therefore, if you really wanted to keep those 3 DVDs for 3 months, you’d still be paying the company more than what they’re actually worth. I’m not saying that getting rid of fines is a bad idea–just that it’s not completely analogous to the corporate model.

    • anonymous says:

      And libraries in effect pay a monthly fee per patron that is distributed across all its potential patrons. It’s completely analogous. Libraries need to start thinking corporate. Because that’s what they are, and that’s how they are measured.

    • Paigers says:

      You’re wrong.

  9. The “life lesson” argument hinges on the fact that the child is the ONLY person checking out items on their cards. In my experience, many caregivers use their child’s card to check out materials after their own reach the fine limit, and so run up bills that prevent their child from checking out. In my experience, it is often caregivers and adults who are in need of a “life lesson,” not the child.

    I think every community has to determine what type of policy (fines or no fines or fines for DVDs only or whatever) works for them– but I don’t think the “life lesson” argument is a strong one. We do have a fine policy, but offer payment plans that come with limited checkout privileges, occasional fine-forgiveness programs during library-card sign up month, and are lenient at times when it is reasonable.

  10. Are life lessons by definition negative? Would it not be a life lesson if a child learns that literacy and reading are to be encouraged? I’ve always been of the opinion that the goal is to encourage patrons to return their books, not to count on fines to supplement the budget, or, even worse, to discourage use of the library.

    And while I’m not a big proponent of library fines, the proposed bill does not say a patron with a fine cannot check out a book, but rather a patron with overdue books cannot check out a new book. There is a difference.

    I do believe in taking responsibilities for our actions and that negative actions should have consequences, and so a “lost” book (i.e. a book that’s overdue by 90 days or whatever limit a library sets) should be acknowledge in some way, but please, put away the guillotine!

  11. thedude says:

    @ anonymous:

    Do patrons really return items in a timely manner if there are no fines? I would think that many patrons would just hold their books until they felt like returning them if they had no fines for overdue books. No?

    • I think places without fines don’t let them check out any more books when they have overdue ones, or they charge them for the price of the item (No refund) after it has been overdue a long period of time.

    • anonymous says:

      Ask netflix. They found that people return things when it is required to get new things.

  12. Wouldn’t placing limits on checkouts be a giant hassle though?

  13. Here in australia a number of libraries have an annual amnesty where you bring in food items that can go to the needy. far more effective than implementing fines

  14. Our library doesn’t charge fines. We found that the amount of staff time spent to take tiny amounts of money from people wasn’t economic, if you also factor in people doing phone renewals to avoid their tiny fines, and people arguing the toss.

    Also, there’s that Israeli kindergarten study that shows if you charge fines, people think of them as service fees, and so do the thing more, unless the fine is huge. Feel guily about picking up your toddler late from kindy? Not after you pay a token fine: then you feel like you have followed the system and all’s good with the world. Similarly, you can feel guilty about bringing your books back late, or you can pay five cents…who wouldn’t just say “I want the book for an extra week. So, 35 cents seems OK to me as a market rate.” Children are the only people fines really affect.

  15. A patron asked me recently, “Oh, you still have library fines? Why would you do that?” I said “Why would anyone bother to bring back items if there were no fines?” While yes, sooner or later the item would go to lost and they would have to bring it back or pay for it, the idea of children being accountable is not the library’s job. We are not babysitters or life-lesson teachers. That is what parents are for. Every child under 18 at my large public library must have a parent sign for them. I make it clear that they are taking responsibility for their child. Many of our patrons here also get cards for each child and then run up fines and missing items charges on one child and move on to the next. It is very frustrating but I don’t think either getting rid of fines or trying to teach other people’s children a lesson is the answer.

    • Jean asked:

      “Why would anyone bother to bring back items if there were no fines?”

      Because they aren’t sociopaths? We don’t have fines and people still ring us for renewals because they don’t want to inconvenience others. Sure, there are a couple of percent of patrons who are problematic in any service, but the reason people bring their books back is because they understand the underlying structure of the common system, and respect it.

      The “Me, me, me” types tend to buy books and ask why their taxes are supporting libraries, which they would never use. 8)

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