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Finally, Feel Free to Return That Library Book You Checked Out in 1981

10 October 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Casey Kidik was in fifth grade when she came across a copy of “Julie of the Wolves.” She had checked it out as a second-grader from the public library in Carver, Mass. By the time she rediscovered the book, the family had moved to Plymouth.

“I found it and then didn’t even want to tell my mom,” recalled Ms. Kidik, 25 years old. She hid the book in her bedroom bookshelf for months before coming clean ahead of a family trip to Carver. Embarrassed, she returned it, and her mom paid the $3.25 fine.

Ms. Kidik felt so guilty she avoided borrowing another book for nearly 20 years. “It’s this weird shame that we have about library late fees,” said Ms. Kidik, now a communications analyst at an asset management firm.

Libraries have come to realize what a lot of guilty readers already know—that late fees prompt some borrowers to keep books rather than face the humiliating tsk-tsk of librarians collecting late fees. That chapter is about over.

This week, Chicago became the largest American metropolis to end charges for overdue books, joining at least 150 library systems in the U.S. and Canada that have ended late-shaming fines, according to the Urban Libraries Council. So far this year, libraries in St. Paul, Minn., Dallas and Oakland, Calif., are among those that have joined the late-fee amnesty movement.

Libraries are fighting for customers to survive in a digital world. One strategy is to remove the twin burdens of fines and guilt.

. . . .

Overdue charges range from around 17 cents a day and up. Libraries often cap fines at $5 to $10, or charge the cost of replacing the item, according to a 2017 study by the Library Journal.

For many borrowers, the money is less onerous than the feelings of disgrace. St. Paul Public Library Director Catherine Penkert said friends used to hang their head in shame and confess “I didn’t even want to tell you, I have fines.”

Sharon Bostick, who recently retired as the dean of libraries at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, knows the feeling. She created the Library Anxiety Scale, a part of her doctoral dissertation.

“All the rules that we have, and the fines and the fees, they’re making libraries really hard to deal with,” she said. “Putting everybody in this spot where they’re going to be fined to death is not helpful.”

Since St. Paul killed overdue fines, some branches have seen a double-digit percentage increase in circulation. Citywide, circulation is up nearly 2%, a surprising plot twist after years of steady declines.

The fear of returning overdue books is part of American culture. In a 1988 episode of “Married with Children,” character Al Bundy faced a $2,163 fine for a copy of the “Little Engine That Could” 31 years overdue. A 1991 episode of “Seinfeld” has Jerry being dogged by a library cop over a book due in 1971.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

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6 Comments to “Finally, Feel Free to Return That Library Book You Checked Out in 1981”

  1. My mom loves the fact that the library ebooks checked out on her kindle auto-return in 21 days (not that it takes her that long to read/return them to go get more!)

  2. So, I can see a class of “library patrons” who will simply throw a book away when they’re finished. Why bother remembering to return it if there’s no penalty?

    Heck, if it’s shameful to have an overdue book, it would be ten times as shameful for the clerk to refuse to let you check out more books just because you never returned any…

    Actually, what’s left of my local library will probably be all over this. They’ve steadily reduced the number of books, first when they wanted space for a “meeting room” that never seems to get used, then for “open areas” with no shelves, and then space for internet computers, and last time I went there, the remaining shelves were sparsely populated. Apparently the library isn’t *about* books any more… they’re just a hassle, I guess.

    • Anonymouse Librarian

      Well, considering that evidence is really clear that removing fines increases the return rate…a lot of people bother. There will always be people who don’t return library books, but when libraries eliminate fines, more people return books than otherwise.

      Also, what usually happens with these policies is that they still have a max number of items that can be checked out, so if you reach that, you have to return some if you want to check out more. They also usually charge a replacement fee if the book has been overdue for a long enough time, and then waive the fee if you return the book. That way there are still incentives to return books, just not lasting penalties even after you do.

    • I noticed the same thing at the library I used to go to. In addition to the fact that there was much less selection to choose from, all the “open areas” meant that every sound echoed and trying to read or study there was like trying to read or study in the food court.

      Admittedly I was born middle-aged (I finally achieved my lifelong dream of acquiring a lawn so I can tell those damn kids to get off it), so maybe the kids today like it that way. Still, I haven’t seen a reason to go back to that library in two years, and I don’t see that changing.

  3. I happen to be the chairman of our local rural library board of trustees. We voted recently to eliminate overdue fines, although we will still charge a replacement fee for books that are not returned. These can get pricy if the unreturned book is hard to replace.

    Fines are a negligible source of revenue to begin with and the cost of collecting and accounting for fines actually approaches the amount of the fines themselves. For many people who need the library the most, overdue fines restrict their use of the library. I never want a poor kid not to be able to check out a book because their disorganized parents can’t help get the book back on time. Or the senior who relies on rides to the library quit checking out books because they could not return a book on our schedule. Our purpose is to serve the community not enforce arbitrary rules. We have ways other than fines to urge people to return items that are in demand.

    Use of libraries is changing. For a while, our paper book circulation was declining while digital circulation was increasing. Digital circulation continues to rise, although paper circulation is now rising also.

    The biggest change I see is that patrons choose their books online and pick them up at the library rather than physically browse the collection.

    This change means that physical libraries can change. Smaller, more carefully chosen browsing collections and more space for users who come to the library to read, study, and attend programs. Optimizing usage is more art than science, and it’s easy to get it wrong, but in our case, our meeting rooms are heavily used– if you want to schedule a meeting room, you had best plan a couple months ahead or be very flexible on when you want to meet.

    We have a couple building projects in mind now. We have been working extensively with the communities involved and expanded meeting space is a high priority with our patrons. We will most likely pay attention to their requests and devote increased square footage to meeting space over the browsing collection. At the same time, we are putting more resources into choosing compact, fast moving browsing collections, rather than letting them be whatever happens to be at a particular branch. The idea is less space but better selection.

  4. Oh yes. I want to add, noise is a problem that we have been putting thought to. With the goal of shifting from a book warehouse to an area for people, acoustics become more significant. Planning for sound control has become more of a factor in library design. Keeping boisterous teenagers in the library is essential to growing a new crop of readers, but it’s a strain on everyone else. The sound can be controlled, but it takes ingenuity. Fortunately, teenagers often are good about keeping it down when the realize that they are sharing the space, but they forget easily.

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