Doing Away with Fines

A consummation devoutly to be wished?

June 25, 2017

Panelists Ryan Buller, Crystal Boyce, Kara Kohn, and Ann Snowman share opinions and experiences regarding library fines.

The Library Leadership and Management Association’s Technology Committee of Practice held a session on Sunday morning that addressed the overdue question: “To Fine, or Not to Fine?” Four panelists of varying backgrounds explained how their libraries ultimately chose to do away with fines for overdue materials and how the policy was put into place.

Ryan Buller, access services librarian at the University of Denver, presented research conducted by Brigham Young University (BYU) Head of Patron Services Duane Wilson, who was unable to attend the conference. Wilson had surveyed 76 large academic libraries in 2012 and found that 75% were charging fines; however, since the survey failed to distinguish between overdue and other types of fines, he conducted a follow-up survey in 2016 and found that only 66% were charging fees for books returned past their due dates.

The survey findings helped BYU decide to eliminate its own overdue fines. Although 74% of the libraries assessing fines felt that the penalty was useful for getting materials back and on time, teaching students responsibility, and providing a revenue stream, the results from libraries without fines contradicted those opinions. Buller said, “Libraries that had done away with fines reported no difference in the number of materials that were returned successfully. Fines did not teach responsibility, because patrons gave other reasonable excuses for lateness, like being unable to get to the library or forgetfulness. The policy negatively affected patrons who could least afford the fine, and the libraries with fines were not even at the break-even point as a revenue stream, because the costs of collection offset the income.”

Buller added that revoking library access for repeat offenders, blocking students’ access to class registration or transcripts, and billing for lost items were more effective than overdue fines.

Ann Snowman, head of access services at Penn State University, described how her library has implemented a policy of payroll deductions for books lost by faculty or staff borrowers. “In June 2002, the university controller asked the library to seek recourse for its $400,000 in accounts receivable over the past two years,” Snowman said. “A significant percentage of the amount was for books reported lost, and the bulk of the offenders were non-affiliated users (state residents or alumni).”

Penn State began a policy of turning non-affiliated delinquent borrowers over to a collection agency after 60 days, while students would be required to pay fines to the bursar at the end of every semester. Garnishment of faculty and staff wages was approved by the faculty senate, but “without advance notice,” Snowman said, “which caused a faculty backlash.” However, a student senator made the case that undergrads owing fines should not be held to a higher standard than faculty, and that effectively ended the debate.

Penn State uses a collection agency that specializes in library fees, Unique National Management Services in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Snowman noted that to date the library has recovered about $1 million in cash and returned materials, and “for every dollar spent on collection, the library has recovered $14.”

Kara Kohn of the Plainfield (Ill.) Public Library District described the fine-free initiative that some libraries in Illinois have adopted. These libraries had been frustrated by the pressure put on frontline staff in dealing with patrons complaining about fines, saying the policy was counterproductive and that the bad publicity costs the library more than the dollar amount owed.

The Ela Public Library District in Lake Zurich gave its trustees two years to weigh the pros and cons of eliminating fines, and they came to a firm decision with suspension of privileges as the only penalty for non-return of books. Meanwhile, the Algonquin Area Public Library District held a pilot program that targeted only one part of the collection. Not all the staff were on board, Kohn said, but the trustees, who never considered fines as a viable revenue stream, eliminated them in 2014. The Vernon Area Public Library District in Lincolnshire held onto fines until Algonquin made its decision, then decided to eliminate fines to improve customer service, charging only for lost materials.

“The bottom line for these libraries,” Kohn said, “is that good will and positive customer service far outweigh the loss of any income. People seem more willing to pay for lost books when they are not subject to overdue fines.”

Crystal Boyce, sciences librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, described how the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (where she had worked as a circulation assistant), shifted from a library-centered approach towards fines to a student-centered approach that eliminated them. “In implementing a new fine policy,” Boyce said, “clarify your message on social media, through the integrated library system, and via staff members. Communicate the new policy to users through mass emails and signage. Choose a clean start date, such as the beginning of a semester. And use data to assess the efficacy of the new policies.”