Ken Haycock: “Should We Reconsider the Paramilitary Library?”

Noted library leader, Ken Haycock, has a regular e-newsletter which contains columns on a wide variety of library and related topics.  I don’t always agree with these columns (I’m still percolating a response to one he sent out in recently about why public libraries should be open on Christmas Day) but do find them thought-provoking most of the time.

Here’s a recent one on Windsor Public Library doing away with fines.  Personally, I think doing away with fines is a great idea.  Although I won’t claim to have read all of the literature on the subject, what I have seen (and what was evidenced by a mini-study Mr. Haycock did) is that fines don’t make a difference to return rates – those who are going to return items on time will do so, fines or not, and those who aren’t going to return items on time won’t, fines or not.

The dirty little not-so-secret of library fines (again, as touched on in the article below) is that some libraries like them because they provide a solid boost to the library’s bottom line in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (depending on the size of the system.)

With Saskatchewan’s move to the a single integrated library system a couple years ago, I think we missed two huge opportunities – one was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move to an open-source ILS and one was to follow the lead of a couple of our province’s smaller systems and do away with fines completely.  Instead, SILS policy now has fines everywhere including the rural and northern systems that didn’t previously have them (although I wonder how often these fines are being collected versus being waived?)

Should We Reconsider the Paramilitary Public Library?

We have so much in common with the police. We each have a chief. We each have hierarchical organizations. We each charge fines.

Can we eliminate at least the fines?

According to a press release from the Windsor (Ontario) Public Library (WPL), ”

Library fines have become a thing of the past since January 1, 2012, when the WPL became the first large urban library in Canada to eliminate fines on overdue materials. It joined a small group of public libraries across North America which has already implemented a NO FINES policy.”

“We are trying to project a modern, inclusive, welcoming and relevant image to our customers,” says the Board Chair Al Maghnieh. “Fines have a negative connotation which serves to limit access and in my mind are punitive. We don’t want to alienate our customers; we want them using our facilities. Fines perpetuate the old-fashioned, stereotypical view of public libraries and serve to address twenty-first century problems with nineteenth century solutions.”

Under the new procedure, immediately any materials are overdue, the account is blocked. On their return, borrowing privileges will be reinstated. Customers will continue to receive electronic notification about returning materials and Windsor will continue to employ a collection agency to make good on materials not returned. At present, only after an account accumulates a total of $30 in fees owing, is it blocked and borrowing privileges revoked. The new procedure is more stringent regarding overdue materials and their return.

(For the full press release: )

On the upside, this news appeared the same week that the Boston Public Library sent a collection agency after a child…

On the downside, Maclean’s magazine (125(2), January 23, 2012, p.8) noted “In a bid to boost readership, the Windsor Public Library decided to eliminate late fees. Libraries have come under pressure in the digital age and creative solutions are needed. But this plan represents a total breakdown of a time-tested lending system, and seems certain to ensure popular books are forever out of stock. (Not to mention the fact that it didn’t help Blockbuster Video.) File this plan under ‘certain failure’.”

The notion of fines seems “fraught”. I have written previously about our language (preferring “extended use fees”) but the issue is much larger. Fines by whatever name generate large sums of money for libraries. It is no secret that some libraries could do a better job of notification of customers to return materials without incurring fines but thus reducing their revenue. A bit of an ethical dilemma it seems.

Also years ago I conducted a study of eighteen secondary schools, nine charging fines and nine not – the return rate was no different but one raised more revenue (not counting of course staff time collecting nickels and dimes). Any school or children’s librarian can recount horror stories of children being admonished by parents not to borrow books again after incurring their first fine.

There is very little discussion of this ethical conflict, considering how much ethics conversation there is in library literature.   And there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about minimizing this ethical issue by improving notification on the service side. There is also precious little research or evidence to help to make a decision about whether to charge fines at all, for whom and under what circumstances. (We won’t go into the hierarchy side where circulation assistants need to refer any waiving of a fine, no matter how small, to a supervisor…)

Do we favour reading by children or revenue to buy more children’s books? Do fines adversely affect reading and use by children or adults? Do different names for fines develop different responses? Does anyone know?

Any and all identification of evidence other than anecdotes is most welcome!



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