Do Overdue Fines Short-Change the Library?

Jeannie.Standal's picture

Who loves to collect overdue fines from students?  Nobody.  But fines are necessary, aren't they?  And for some school libraries, aren't they a needed revenue stream?  What if collecting the overdue fine costs more than the fine itself? 

In a recent conversation with a school librarian, the topic of overdue fines came up. She's done away wit them for these reasons:

  • Collecting small overdue fines requires spending a lot of staff time, and using paper and toner - resulting in spending more on the administering the fine than the library would have collected.  Of course, the largest share of the cost is staff time, and most librarians agree that they would rather be spending that time with students or on other tasks.
  • Collecting fines does not encourage accountability, especially for younger students.  Charging fines, and then suspending lending privileges because of fines owed, is, however, very effective at keeping studens away from the library.  Paying for lost materials may be a seperate issue, but small fines for returning materials a few days late might not be the best path to accountability.  After all, students don't come back and thank librarians for that fine that taught a crucial lesson in accountability.  They just stop coming to the library.  Got repeat offenders that lose most of what they check out?  A possible solution could be an honor collection made up of donated materials that those kids can pick from.
  • There is some discussion about whether charging fines is actually contrary to the mission of a library - proving access for all its patrons.  Fines tend to negatively impact the very people we are trying the hardest to attract to the library, undoing months of effort in a single charge.  
  • It is an essential function of a school library to get books into the hands of kids, especially at the elementary level where students are learning to read. Those kids are mostly dependent on their parents to pay fees, and if the parents won't or can't pay, it's the kids who are penalized.

There is another side to this argument: many school libraries depend on fines and fees as a much-needed source of funding.  Forgiving the cost of lost materials or abandoning fees may not be feasible.  It's a good idea, though, to run a simple cost/benefit analysis of the library's fine policy.  It might show a change in that policy might be better for the students, the librarian, and the bottom line, making everyone happier and providing more access for students.