Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Keep It As Long As You Want

Today I want to talk about something controversial. Dr. Seuss and Donald Trump are flashes in the librarian pan; unhinged students exercising their right to free speech by trying to shout down other people’s speech is a passing fad.

Instead, let’s talk about library fines and how much I don’t like them.

Before we get into it, I should note that as a librarian, I haven’t paid a lot of library fines. It’s pretty easy to return books on time when you have to go into the place you got them from every day.

Thus, I have no personal axe to grind. I don’t take on this crusade for myself. I do it for the people, just like I do everything else.

But I still don’t like them. I don’t like them when they’re levied on children whose parents are irresponsible, leaving the children unable to check out library books to read.

I don’t like them when they’re levied on poor, but admittedly irresponsible, people who might benefit from reading books but can’t because they owe money for fines that they can’t pay. And I don’t like it when people go to jail for library fines they can’t pay.

Obviously, I understand the argument that people should be responsible for turning in their books on time. I agree. They should. We should all be more responsible.

However, the mission of the library is to spread knowledge, reading, and literacy, not teach responsibility.

Look around you at your library. Look at yourself. Do you really think you or your colleagues are such paragons of morality that you should be enforcing it on others? If you think so, think again. We’re all flawed.

Also, I understand the argument some misguided librarians make that fines help libraries raise money. Maybe they do, but it’s not a stream of revenue that libraries should count on.

Those people who pay fines have already paid taxes, so the library already has their money. Work smarter with it.

However, it turns out there’s a simple solution that might be really common and I just wasn’t aware of it.

The Lafayette (LA) Public Library is in the vanguard here. They announced a new policy of automatic renewals for almost everything.

The library announced today it has a new service — RENEW DAT — which automatically renews your non-digital library items. That will mean no more late fees because non-digital items will automatically renew before they are overdue, letting you return them at your convenience.

The digital items are probably off limits because libraries pay ebook vendors gobs of money for severely restricted use of digital products they can’t control. Items on hold also don’t renew.

The people get notified by mail of the renewals, so essentially they’re getting a late notice, but it comes before they’ve accrued any fines.

The one catch is that “late fees will still apply when an item reaches its renewal limit,” but the article doesn’t say what the limit is.

Still, considering the short checkout times for a lot of library material, 2-3 automatic renewals makes it easier for people.

I’m torn on whether it would be better to allow unlimited renewals of items that could be renewed.

You could argue that it would just encourage laziness and irresponsibility in patrons who would never bring things back. But, again, it’s not our job to promote morality outside of library-related areas like intellectual freedom.

The best argument against unlimited renewals is probably that it would make the shelves of many libraries, especially smaller ones, into barren wastelands after a while, making it more difficult for people to browse and find books.

In a big university library with a couple of million books, that sort of thing doesn’t matter, but if your library has only 50,000 books, that could be a serious problem.

So while unlimited renewals might be the ideal to get rid of most fines, it makes sense to limit them.

If this practice is widespread, I wish I’d known about it sooner. And if it’s not, kudos to the Lafayette Public Library for being in the vanguard.

If nobody wants to check out the book, let people keep it as long as they want. Anything else is just enforcement of an arbitrary rule that helps nobody.



  1. I really dislike the classist attitude that excuses “poor, but admittedly irresponsible, people”. Why are they allowed to deprive others of the materials they need? Auto-renewals are a good in-between no fines and accountability. My library has been doing them for years now. As long as a book doesn’t have a request I can keep it for 9 weeks (3 weeks with 2 auto-renewals of 3 weeks each). But, I cannot hold that book through the summer when high school students need it for summer reading. There is a consequence. I haven’t seen barren shelves, other than from poor budget support.

    • There are a lot of not-poor, but admittedly irresponsible people too (just check the daily news) but no one seems to bring them up. I don’t know any librarian who sees fines as a source of revenue (though other govt depts. might). And what if that book has a hold list on it? Would it still be renewed automatically? What if some other poor but not necessarily irresponsible person is waiting for that item? At some point you have to say, enough.

    • @Joneser, I think you missed the part where I wrote, ‘As long as a book doesn’t have a request…. That answers the question.

    • @Opal I did indeed miss that – reading too quickly.

  2. “If nobody wants to check out the book, let people keep it as long as they want. Anything else is just enforcement of an arbitrary rule that helps nobody.”

    How do we know if no one wants the book if it isn’t on the shelf? Isn’t the idea of collocation to encourage serendipitous finding? I don’t think I’ve ever gone a month without checking out a book I didn’t even know existed and certainly was not seeking to find. That only happened because the book was on the shelf.

    I oppose fines too, and hope to soon eliminate them in our library. But we still want the books to come back. There are ways to ensure that happens. Eight weeks seems reasonable. We are a lending library, not a giving library.

    • Browsing is a huge driver of circulation in public libraries – in fact, many people fill their arms up at the New Books shelves and don’t go any further. Also, what if it is a difficulty for some people to have to put a title on hold and then come back? It’s not an “arbitrary rule that helps nobody”; it’s a way of at least optimizing the insufficient resources we do have.

      Has AL ever worked in a public library? I’m not thinking so.

    • I’ve had a lot of people tell me no on putting a book on hold. They said they would wait for it to come back. But by the time it comes back, they probably will have forgotten about it!

    • So I’m not a librarian or library professional. I’m just someone who used to really love the library and still likes them, at least in theory.

      I’ve been really bummed since moving to my new city. The libraries here have completely converted to community centers, and it looks like it will only get worse after renovations.

      I used to check out dozens and dozens of books per year. But now, I try to limit my use of the library for 3 reasons:
      1) They are generally unpleasant and very noisy so I have given up on the idea of going there for fun or to get work done most of the time. It’s now more of a free media loan system. I cannot stand trying to browse while holding my backpack, coat, etc. Crime is up, theft occurs, and there aren’t any lockers. More importantly, the noise is just so overwhelming I cannot tune it out anymore. I cannot even think enough to browse and just can’t wait to get out of there! So I tend to just reserve my books I find online from home. This is a loss for me, but a win for the library, as the books are more likely to be on the shelf for someone who really wanted THAT particular book and not just me.

      2) I am a reformed irresponsible person who still is irresponsible. Thanks in part to the library, I think there’s a strong change I have grown up with undiagnosed ADHD related issues that were always treated as discipline issues as a kid. Less library books = fewer fines if I’m late and less check outs = lower probability I’ll slip up. It’s a win-win because I have fewer fines now and the library doesn’t have to lend out to a problem patron like me anymore. One thing I do is go on library ban months, where I don’t allow myself to check anything out. Because I always say, “hey, you’re not going to forget this time” or “you’re not going to sit on these books for a few days because you want to wait for a day you have the car or a ride already.” But then I always slip up. I pretty much think of myself as a delinquent, no-good patron who doesn’t deserve the books! Even when I can afford the fines, I still resent myself for being the reason we can’t splurge on a donut during a road trip or getting a music subscription for the month.

      It’s kind of strange to find out that all these years libraries wanted you to take out more books more often. Between the limits and the fines I always felt like it was a big favor and privilege I hadn’t fully earned. Plus more recently the libraries in the towns I live in practically chase readers away.

  3. I actually have no qualms in paying library fines. If I mess up and forget to return, in spite of the check out slip and the e-mail reminder, then it’s no one’s fault but mine. You know, “personal responsibility”. A dated concept in which no one on this page apparently believes in.

    Learn to take responsibility for your own mistakes instead of whining about hither, yither and yon.

  4. Academic here. We got rid of fines many years ago and never looked back. When you can place a registration hold and freeze transcripts the books do come back. I wish the PLs had it that easy. Not that there aren’t some wonderful ideas out there.

  5. We haven’t charged fines in a very long time. But if you don’t return your item (even with a grace period of being overdue), then it goes to a lost status and you can’t check anything else out until you take care of it (either pay for it or return it).

    Just recently (in the past couple of years) instituted the automatic renewals up to 5 times, and even without fines it makes everyone’s lives easier and less stressful. The automatic renewal only happens when no one has a hold on the item, of course.

  6. Rural librarian says:

    I am a librarian in a small rural library, in which I have worked since 2000. I no longer enforce fines, at all. I do this because most people here are poor and even a fine as small as twenty five cents will cause them to stop coming into the library, thus stop using the library. I no longer care if the book has a hold or how long it has been overdue, they can bring it in without a fine. Some insist on paying a fine and that’s okay, but they are not required to. I have found that patron retention rate is higher and that’s much more valuable than the fine. Like was said in the article, they have already paid their taxes that fund this library, and I’m okay with that. If patrons have long overdue items, they aren’t allowed to check out additional items until the overdue ones are returned. I no longer mail out overdue notices either, it’s a complete waste of time and money. I can probably count on one hand the number of items returned because of overdue notices. I will sometimes call a patron with an overdue item, especially if the item is on hold or popular, but it rarely needs to happen.
    I have patrons who return to the library after years of not using it because they had overdue materials or fines and were not able to pay, be amazed that they can now use the library again. Many of these people have become faithful users of the library and are punctual about returning materials. Yes, there are some who abuse the system, there always will be, but I’m okay with that too. It’s too stressful to try to deal with getting back materials from people, I have better things to do, like build positive relationships with new and “old” new patrons. They are the people who will see the importance of a library in their community. They will bring their children and grandchildren and will support the library during difficult times.

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