The San Jose Public Library wants its books back. And its CDs and DVDs. Taken altogether, library patrons are holding onto or have damaged 97,000 items and owe the city $6.8 million in fines and fees. The situation is so out of control that about 40 percent of the city’s library cardholders can no longer borrow anything until they return their library holdings and pay what they owe. For a library, this is a DEFCON moment. Maybe not DEFCON 1, but at least DEFCON 3.
What can San Jose do? City council member Pierluigi Oliverio has suggested a limited-time amnesty on fines for overdue materials. “If you bring those items back, that’s worth a lot of money just in that inventory of items,”he said earlier this month. In other words, in return for its patrons doing what they’re supposed to do, the library will let bygones be bygones. What’s a little fine between friends, after all?
Over the years, libraries have fined patrons for not bringing back books and offered no-questions-asked return periods. They’ve published the names of book scofflaws in local newspapers. They’ve paid personal calls on people who hold onto books past their due dates, and even sicced the police on particularly recalcitrant readers. And they still don’t really know how to get their books back.
“Librarians have been playing with this issue for a century and a half, and there is little consensus,” says Wayne Wiegand, author of Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.
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But no one’s actually proven that fines work. “Our first rule of thumb is we are providing materials with taxpayer funds,” says Julie Todaro, the incoming president of the American Library Association. But, she’s quick to add, “A lot of people will tell you higher fines aren’t a detriment to returns. It is a detriment to people using the library. Period.”
San Jose’s problems began when it raised fines in 2010, from 25 cents to 50 cents a day. Other area libraries charge less. San Francisco dings late borrowers 10 cents for every day late, with a hard stop at $5. The San Mateo County Library, where borrowers from wealthy Atherton check out books, charges 25 cents a day for adult books, up to $8, and 15 cents a day for children’s books, up to $3.90. Exclusive Mountain View is also at 25 cents, and allows borrowers to keep books for four weeks.
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In Wiegand’s view, library fines are vestigial, a leftover from 200 years ago, when books were highly valuable items, and few could afford to purchase them. Handing over a book for a limited period of time involved a significant financial risk for the lender, and a fine protected that investment.
But even back when, a fine couldn’t guarantee a library would get its goods back. Even George Washington neglected to return The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel and a volume of debates from the English Parliament to the elites-only New York Society Library.
The New York Society Library needed to wait until 2010, when the New York Daily News outed the founding father, to recover its property. Embarrassed employees of the Mount Vernon historic site saw the article and tracked the missing items down. In return, the New York Society Library gratefully waived the $300,000 in overdue fines. (Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr agreed on one thing, by the way. New York Society Records showed they returned borrowed books regularly.)
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matt for the tip.