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Will Reporting Fines to Police Hurt Library Patronage?

by on March 29, 2016

On March 1, 2016, Governor Scott Walker signed Senate Bill 466 into effect, taking a step toward recouping business losses for Wisconsin’s public libraries that tally in the millions. According to a report by WTMJ-TV, Wisconsin library patrons annually fail to return $3 million in taxpayer-owned materials.[1] Instead of encouraging patrons to be more conscientious, however, will this bill do more harm to Wisconsin’s library patronage? With the possible consequences, patrons may look for new options to borrowing materials from a brick-and-mortar library.

As reported by WTMJ-TV, the bill pokes holes in privacy laws for Wisconsin’s citizens. Just as the healthcare industry deals with issues of confidentiality and privacy, this new state law may create its own legal headaches. When patrons sign up for a library card, they submit private information, such as their addresses and phone numbers. They do not permit libraries to hand over that information to other parties, whether or not they owe fines. Wisconsin has obviously been tough on patrons who don’t pay their fines. One Shawano woman was jailed in 2011 for not returning materials and racking up nearly $500 in fines. In Idaho, fines and private information can be sent to collections, but no one appears to have been jailed yet. Public outcry from states that advocate a more hands-on approach to government could stall efforts to mimic Wisconsin.

Many libraries already offer potential alternatives, like e-book lending services, and these typically don’t require patrons to do anything but link a Kindle or Nook account to a library card. When the lending period is over, the book is simply disabled, mitigating fear of fines and any other repercussions. In October 2015, Troy Lambert discussed e-lending versus subscription e-reading services. He concluded that libraries’ e-lending services would still come out on top, but that was before this new legislation. Now it may be worth it for people to pay $10 a month or Amazon’s $100 a year for unlimited e-reading rather than risk fines, a credit rating hit, and even a police record. If library borrowers worry about ending up in jail for their fines, sites like Audible.com and podcasters may become the future of lending.

As Wisconsin’s legislation is brand new, its ramifications may not be felt for months, if at all. Yet for patrons who have been fined before, the thought of incurring a police record for using the library again may be enough for them to think twice about borrowing another book.


[1] Associated Press, “Libraries can now report overdue fines to the police.”  WTMJ-TV, March 1, 2016.

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  1. John DeBacher says:

    Mar 31, 2016

    The bill was designed to address practices some libraries had already undertaken. Since at least 1979 Wisconsin has had in its criminal code a “Theft of library material” law, that included failure to return materials. Many other states have wording in their laws related to privacy of patron records an allowance so that by willfully ignoring library policy, the patron compromises some of that protection. Finally, consider that a major settlement last year reached by the NY Atty General with the major credit reporting agencies (http://goo.gl/27CSDg) includes protections going into place this June whereby the three major credit rating agencies will no longer accept “library debt” to be reported for inclusion in credit information and scores. A little more research may have afforded a less inflammatory-toned article.

    John DeBacher, Director, Public Library Development
    Wisconsin Division for Libraries & Technology
    (and two-time NANOWRIMO winner)

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