Use of public resources is based on the premise of sharing. Like public parks and pools, public libraries have rules to ensure equal access. When a patron checks out a book, they must return it within a specified amount of time so other members of the public can access it. When a patron doesn’t return their book on time, or at all, not only is it not available for other patrons to enjoy, but the library also loses revenue replacing materials.
The only means libraries have of enforcing this contract is imposing fines. Many libraries have a maximum fine threshold. Once reached, borrowing privileges are revoked until fines are paid. This practice is controversial; if a patron’s privileges are revoked, they may stop using the library altogether rather than pay the fines. Additionally, the ALA believes libraries should “resist the temptation to impose user fees to alleviate financial pressures.” Some libraries offer alternatives, like “amnesty programs.” Queens Public Library and Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library both offer a “Read Down Your Fines” program in which children receive credit toward fines by reading. New York Public Library held a similar program in the summer of 2011. Libraries in Nashville, Kansas, and San Mateo County hold “Food for Fines” campaigns where patrons reduce fines through canned goods donation.
In spite of the alternatives, library fines remain the standard for most libraries. But because collecting is not always easy, many libraries have turned to collection agencies. One agency is the Library Division of Unique Management Services (UMS), specializing in recovery of fines/material for libraries. According to their website, they have recovered “over $250 million in…materials, fines, and fees” for clients in the United States, Canada, and England. Many libraries have found the collection agencies to be effective. From 1996 to 2007 for example, UMS recovered $11.4 million in unpaid fines for Queens Public Library, $364,000 in cash fines and materials for L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library from 2004 to 2016, and $5.8 million in fines for New York Public Library from 1995 to 2007.”
Since collection agencies use credit reporting as a last resort, the use of collection agencies put libraries in the position of risking the goodwill of their patrons. While UMS claims to provide results “with no loss of patron goodwill,” they fail to provide data to back this statement up. And then there is the problem of erroneous contact information. Patrons often enter our branch, collections letter in hand, claiming to have received no prior notifications from the library about overdue materials. I often find that the contact information we have on file is missing, wrong or outdated. Sometimes, patrons do not receive the letters from the collection agency at all and are startled to find themselves denied the ability to check out materials, or worse, suddenly find that their credit score affected. Certainly if channels used to notify patrons of fines are not functioning, resulting in accounts going into collections, “goodwill” will be difficult to maintain.
Sometimes Libraries Make Mistakes (Gasp!)
Yes, it’s true. Libraries make mistakes. Sometimes patrons return books on time and library staff fail to check them in properly. Usually, the patron catches the mistake, and we can rectify the problem. But what if the patron doesn’t catch the mistake? This situation, combined with an invalid email, mailing address, or phone number is a recipe for disaster. The collection agency may believe it’s contacting the patron, but the patron is not receiving the communications until they find their credit score has been affected. If we are to impose fines in the first place, then we require a way to enforce this policy. While some patrons may not mind an account in collections or an inability to borrow books, they may mind a credit bureau reporting.
For libraries that choose to impose fines, a collection agency may offer effective motivation for patrons to pay fines or return materials, which may be effective at recouping their losses but the library risks losing a patron’s goodwill forever.
 “Economic Barriers to Information Access § Principles Governing Fines, Fees, and User Charges,” American Library Association, accessed April 4, 2016.
 Priyanka Borpujari, “For Young Readers, a Chance to Work off Library Debt,” New York Times, March 28, 2013.
 Bob Warburton, “Wisconsin Law Validates Library Use of Collection Agencies,” Library Journal, March 1, 2016.