Inside The Library: Why County libraries don’t charge fines

When you were thinking about new year’s resolutions you may have resolved to use the library more, or to be sure to return your books on time if you are already a regular. If you resolved to use the library more often – welcome! If you resolved to always be prompt with your returns – thank you! Did you know that should you inadvertently err and not return your books on time that your library does not charge fines?

Why do we not charge fines you may ask? Is it not some inviolable rule that libraries must charge fines? It is true that there are a number of stereotypes that haunt us in this business, but no, this is not sacrosanct.

There are any number of reasons we don’t charge. Firstly, most people are very considerate of others and understand that someone out there is also wanting to read the latest Louise Penny or the Michelle Obama book. I picked those because they both have waiting lists!

Secondly fines accrue automatically on your record. When this happens (if we were set up to make it happen) you would not be able to access your account to place requests or to renew your books. It saves staff time if you do it online, and you can request a title as soon as you think of it — day or night. Also when the person working the circulation desk has to handle money that takes time away from more important functions that help us to serve our patrons’ reading needs.

You may remember the days when we would hold regular “forgiveness weeks”. This happened a couple of times a year and if you had overdue books you could return them during that week free of charge. This would be modestly successful. We would happily welcome some books back that we feared were lost to us. Fearing a huge fine, some patrons would hold on to the book even longer waiting for that grace period. This seems counterproductive to our aim to encourage everyone to feel comfortable borrowing from the library.

So perhaps not surprisingly the kinder, gentler approach has proven to be more productive. Most books come back in a timely fashion. Revenues have not fallen because guilt in a great incentive to donate and staff can avoid some uncomfortable conversations. All in all it in my mind has been one of those situations where a perfect solution has been found to a sometimes sticky problem.

I have become a spokesperson for the “no fine policy”. Every month or two a librarian from somewhere in the province will call me because they have been toying with the idea themselves but can’t quite bring themselves to make the move. I have to admit that I have become quite a crusader on the subject. “Why would you want to put up any barriers that could potentially turn people away from using the library?” or “Just think how embarrassed some of your more senior patrons are when they are told at the front desk for all to hear that their book is overdue and they owe the library money!”. I really should tone it down a bit but on this subject I am passionate.

Libraries are not rigid, rule-laden impossible to navigate institutions, throw backs from the past. They are a source of entertainment, edification and places to socialize. Libraries welcome one and all. If your new year’s resolution was to use the library more, please do and we will try to make it easy for you.

-Barbara Sweet