My local library is a tiny outpost in the inner-north of Melbourne. It is a utilitarian and slightly shabby 1980s building with weeds growing up outside of it, perched on the slope of a noisy intersection between a pharmacy and a disappointing florist. The opening hours are brief. Inside it is dark and cramped. It has modest stock on the shelves: new release fiction, battered paperbacks, cookbooks, DIY, and children’s picture books.
Despite its lack of promise, the library is a portal to a world of reading because I can request books from the wider network of which it is a part. I order piles of books online from home and their arrival is staccato as they are returned one-by-one to the library by other borrowers. An email pings my iPhone when they are ready to collect, ready to add to my ever-towering reading pile.
When I arrive at the library I skim the shelf to find the books waiting for me, arranged alphabetically by borrower surnames. Each book is bound in an elastic band with a slip of paper tucked inside the front cover bearing my name. I take my haul to the self-checkout machine and scan the barcode of my membership card under the red laser light. A message pops up on the screen: I have a $1.50 fine for an overdue book, Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country. I never did get around to reading it. I returned it a few days late so it has cost me in fines.
Library fines can creep up on you. All it takes is for your child to lose a picture book down the back of the couch, or for you to get sick, or to go away on holiday, or to simply forget the book in the mess of life. In no time, the fines start growing.
I can pay the fine now or acknowledge the message and go ahead and borrow my stack. The library will let me accrue fifteen dollars worth of fines before it suspends my borrowing rights. I press ‘ok’ on the fines message and load my books on the scanner. They register as loans and I drop them into my canvas tote bag.
Library fines for overdue materials are levied by almost every public library in Australia. Fines are designed to encourage people to be good library citizens, to return limited resources—books and other materials—to the library so other people can borrow them. On the face of it, fines are a simple and effective idea. But the model of library fines is paradoxical.
Not everyone can afford to pay fines and the threat of a financial penalty causes many of these people to act in the opposite way than is intended. They hang on to the overdue books because they are too scared to return them. The fines accrue and their borrowing rights are suspended. If they cannot borrow they may let their library membership lapse and slowly drift away from the library’s orbit. Library memberships are often linked to accessing other services: using computers and printers, accessing free wifi and booking into classes and events. It is the people who cannot afford to pay fines —the young, the poor, the elderly and the socially disadvantaged—who benefit the most from using libraries, for libraries are not only about books. They are also community hubs, social meeting places, and service providers who help people learn and find jobs. They help the socially isolated connect with other people in their local community.
If fines stop people using the library then they are antithetical to the philosophy and mission of the library. Fines set up a potentially adversarial relationship between a library and the public. It is stressful for library staff to be the fine police. No librarian wants to enforce financial penalties or to restrict access to the library. It is counter to their values and professional training to do so.
Temporary fine amnesties are common practice amongst libraries: from time to time a library will call on the community to return overdue items and waive their outstanding fines. Often there is a quid pro quo; you dodge the fine and you make a donation of food to charity as a mea culpa. Casey-Cardinia in Melbourne’s South East ran a ‘food for fines’ campaign in the lead up to Christmas last year. They collected over $15000 worth of goods, forgave nearly $13000 in fines, raised $6000, and had a great flood of overdue books return from book limbo.
Other alternatives to coughing up the cash are having children ‘read down’ their fines, that is, they can reduce their fines by joining a program to read more books. Some libraries simply exclude vulnerable populations from fines altogether or use their discretion to waive them based on an assessment of capacity to pay. Other libraries are experimenting with automatically renewing books to extend loans, creating a grace period before fines accrue.
More libraries here and overseas are re-examining fines and swapping their punitive approach for methods that build goodwill with the community.
Earlier this year, New York Public Library changed its approach to fines after finding that more than 225000 young people had their library cards blocked because of outstanding debts. That equates to one in five children with library cards in New York having their borrowing rights suspended. The highest concentration of these children was from poorer neighbourhoods.
The City of Sydney recently made news around the country when they abolished library fines for the next four years after a trial period and a fine amnesty, which saw almost 70000 books returned, some overdue for many years. The library will suspend borrowing until books are returned but will not impose fines. If books are permanently lost or damaged they will try to recover the replacement costs. Other libraries such as the City of Parramatta, in Sydney’s West, have similar schemes in place, however most libraries still levy fines.
So why would libraries threaten punitive action if there are alternatives? This is because fines not only act as a behavourial ‘stick’ to encourage people to return materials, they are also a source of revenue for cash-strapped libraries. While revenue from fines does not make up a significant portion of a library’s budget, they do add up to a material amount.
The City of Sydney reports that it raised more than $1 million dollars in fines since 2004. Across New York City’s three library services; New York Public, Queen’s and Brooklyn, $5.5 million dollars in fines was raised in one year. If you think about those figures in terms of the costs of staff, running programs, replacing computers and equipment or buying collection items, losing that income is a decent hole in a library’s budget.
New York Public Library is seeking private funding for a $10 million endowment so they can scrap fines in perpetuity. Unfortunately, local public libraries in Australia do not have the same power to tap into philanthropy. Finding alternate revenue to replace fines is a difficult challenge and one that will be insurmountable for some libraries.
On my way out of the library I stop at the service desk and take out a dollar and a fifty-cent coin from my spare change and hand it to the librarian along with my membership card, ‘I owe some fines’.
She smiles, scans my card, puts the money into a cash box and hands me a receipt, thanking me for paying my fine promptly.
I have never had my borrowing rights suspended because I can afford to pay my fines, but not everyone can. Equally, most libraries cannot afford to relinquish the income. For now, library fines are a quandary waiting to be solved. It is heartening to see some libraries giving it a shot.
Justine Hyde is Director, Library Services and Experience at the State Library Victoria and a freelance writer. @justine_hyde