Keep the human element in library fines

Libraries that fine need to take a good look at how their policies affect everyday users, and the possibility of unintended consequences of rigid policies.

Library fines are about getting books back on time, yet I sometimes hear library staff talk about, ‘teaching responsibility’ and ‘if they don’t like it don’t use the Library’. These don’t fit in my view of what the library profession is and I don’t think it fits in with what the library profession needs to survive in the future. Another article quotes a library staff member saying,

“…we could see ourselves in libraries as guardians of socially appropriate behaviour”

Excuse me? Why would libraries want to be guardians of socially appropriate behavior?

When librarian’s talk about patrons and library fines, they will often jump to the worst case scenario, or the worst kind of patrons. The people that intentionally abuse the system. But what about the busy people, the kids just learning responsibility, harried parents with the best intentions.

The number one thing is getting people to return again and again to use the library. If your policies turn people away, then it’s time to change those policies (if you want to remain viable). I don’t see it as simply, fines or no fines. I find that most public libraries have a ham fisted way of charging for late items. Many have no caps, and a handful of children’s picture books, that nobody is waiting for, can accrue large sums while they have been misplaced in pile of other books. Yes people should be responsible, but it’s not the library’s place to teach them that and definitely not at the cost of never returning.

I want evidence based research, not emotional arguments about why libraries should have this or that fine policy. Wouldn’t it be great to test what polices worked and why. Wouldn’t it be neat to take a segment of your patrons and try out new polices and study the results. Wouldn’t it be great if this could help develop new policies. Policies that help get more of your books back and on time and keep the patrons coming back too.

care of the LJ survey

We are all capable of returning books late, it can happen to the best of us. I would like to know at what point do library fines become unplayable on a patrons account? What figure is the point of no return? I would guess it would be somewhere between $25–30 for the majority of people. How easy is it for a patron to accumulate that amount of fines in your system? How quickly does it occur? Is there anything in place that allows them to get out of that situation? As librarians we might feel justified in charging fines, but are we prepared to face the reality of strict polices in the light of possible declining use.

Libraries mostly deal in the physical, the space, the items, and therefore can’t have the automatic check ins that ebooks have, or the simultaneous use of something like Netflix. But this is the world that patrons are increasingly becoming familiar with. Even the DVD rental stores are all but dead, which leaves libraries as perhaps the remaining bastions of fines.

6 Tenets of library fines

(Some suggestions I think could help guide fine policies…)

  1. Patrons are more important than books/items
  2. Staff should give patrons the benefit of the doubt
  3. Fines are solely to have the return of books within a reasonable time frame and not seen as a form of revenue generating
  4. Fines are not a way to punish undesirable patron behaviour; Libraries are not in the business of dispensing justice or teaching responsibilty
  5. Fines should not cripple a person’s ability to use the library (be aware of the cut off point)
  6. Children should not be punished because of their parents behaviour


  • Keep room for the human, listen to your patrons, understand their concerns, help them to keep using the library.
  • Offer email and or text message alerts.
  • Institute fine maximums, this can be done with per item, per check in, or better still per account
  • Empower all of your staff to waive fines, within reason.
  • Allow payment plans
  • don’t bar people for small amounts
  • Don’t see fines as revenue
  • Have an amnesty day
  • Auto renew titles in your ILS/LMS

Want to know more?

Here are some articles I have enjoyed reading for their take on the topic of libraries and fines.

The most common sense article I have read on fines. Lots of practical examples and reasoning.

Really good and well reasoned article on fines and the bad PR it creates.

Overdue fines undercut a library’s mission.

LJ review of what libraries charges fees & fines for.

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