Magazine article American Libraries

Grassroots Report: A Fine Madness

Magazine article American Libraries

Grassroots Report: A Fine Madness

Article excerpt

I've long depended on the kindness of circulation clerks. Audiobooks are a staple of my commutes, and "reading" titles such as Reading Lolita in Tehran (18 hours of listening time), Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (nearly 36 hours altogether), and even Pirates! (a mere 9.5 hours) sometimes takes longer than it ought to. Library staff who have reminded me about soon-to-be-overdue materials when I check out yet another book, or who have generously interpreted the library's grace period policy, have kept the overdue fines I pay to a minimum--at least until recently.

Higher fines and reduced grace periods have resulted in considerably more cash in library coffers, a phenomenon some have referred to as Libraryland's version of the speed trap. Soft evidence abounds of a trend toward higher overdue fines. Such periodicals as the Christian Science Monitor have featured the topic, and Consumer Reports recently published an article on how libraries' practices of sending unpaid-overdue notices to collection agencies can affect users' credit ratings.

An online discussion list I scan recently considered the matter, and one library announced a new policy as a result: Patrons at that institution will be cut off once they accrue $2 in overdue charges. This policy reflects a traditional take on fines as a measure designed to encourage prompt returns and prevent loss of materials, but not every library shares this goal.

"It's clear anecdotally and it's clear based on the amount of money people are losing that this is a substantial revenue stream. The trend has been, as far as I can see, to increase fines," Herbert Snyder, associate professor of accounting at North Dakota State University, said. Author of Small Change, Big Problems: Detecting and Preventing Financial Misconduct in Your Library (ALA Editions, 2006), Snyder commented, "The biggest library fraud I've ever seen involved overdue fines. Many libraries don't realize precisely how much money comes in this way."

Better late than never

At the same time, some libraries are quite conscious of how much money is at stake.

A few years ago, Seattle Public Library raised its fines with a clearly identified revenue target of $50,000 in an effort to make up for funding cuts. The revised policy included fines for materials such as large-print titles that previously did not accrue overdue charges, and increased daily overdue fines from 10Cents to 15Cents, while decreasing the amount at which accounts are blocked from $20 to $15. …

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