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Fine Policies and Lost Item Policies

by on November 10, 2019

I have recently been contacted by several reporters in reference to an article I wrote in 2017 in which I disagree with the elimination of fines and learned that I was quoted in other venues. As this topic has gained more interest and political attention the issue is no longer one limited to libraries. However, the discussions I have heard, even amongst librarians do not seem to be taking into account a fundamental administrative issue: no policy, ever, anywhere, exists in isolation from others.

This concept should not be foreign to librarians. For years we have been acutely aware that our Unattended Children Policies are intrinsically linked with our Code of Conduct. Fundamentally, we want to create a safe and comfortable place for all. Hence we have these two policies, that while separate we know must work in tandem. We understand that alterations in one will likely effect the other. Likewise, we recognize this intimate relationship between Collection Development and Challenged Materials policies.

As discussion of fine policies or specifically no fine policies has reached the limelight, few seem to realize that this policy should not be examined without considering its sister policy: lost book replacements. The support for removing fines centers on the goal of preventing those suffering financial hardships from being denied library use, an admirable goal, but not a simple solution. Communities that are experiencing poverty may also have limited access to transportation and this may create barriers for people to return items on time. Often there is disproportionate racial impact. These are real and important issues. In many locations, eliminating fines may be a very helpful and valid policy decision. In other locations, it may not be.

Regardless, eliminating fines is not a decision that should be made in isolation. A library can eliminate fines, but due to their lost/replacement policy end up being more discriminatory and limiting. Take for example, the library that has eliminated fines, but by policy charges a replacement fee when the item is two weeks over due. The patron with a two week long item out for 30 days is charged $15-25.00, and is generally blocked from library use until this fee is paid.

Now examine a library that charges a fine of .05 a day, caps their per item fine at $3.00 or $5.00 and has a lost/replacement policy that calls a patron at day 30, provides written notification of a pending replacement cost at day 60, and doesn’t bill until day 90. This library’s patron with a two week long item out at 30 days has $1.50 fine, can still use the library, and has 60 more days to return the material before incurring significant costs and loss of privilege. This same patron can keep using the library, not return the item for 85 days and still only incur $3 or $5. Further, I know of many libraries who can waive fees for hardship, but very few who will not charge a replacement when the items are kept.

A library’s main goal is to have its materials used and returned. At a certain point, we all must charge a replacement fee. It sounds very noble to announce a library will eliminate fees, but if the replacement window is short, who is really benefiting? If policy makers really wish to do good, we must not examine such policies in isolation. I strongly suspect patrons will be happier with a small and insignificant fine rather than a hefty replacement cost that limits access.