Academic Libraries Should Ditch Library Fines

Photo credit: Martin Davidsson

I've been pleased watching librarians and others push back this week against Greta Van Susteren's half-hearted slow boil over rising tuition costs. Response for the greatest part was firm and well-meaning. As many have already stated, beating back rising tuition has little to do with any library's physical construction. Benefactors are more likely to fund construction of academic libraries than contribute toward year-over-year electronic database and journal subscriptions -- the very stuff Ms. Van Susteren says we have on our smartphones. As others are right to point out, many students lack those smart phones. This wasn't a match of equals. Librarians win.

But this week I also finished reading Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (9780226404349). It's one thing to take easy umbrage with Ms. Van Susteren and to call her out on Twitter. It's another to reflect upon ways in which academic libraries may be contributing to the precarious circumstances of many students like those described in Dr. Goldrick-Rab's book. Are we as ready to talk about library charges added to tuition bills, or the potential impacts of library fines or book replacement bills that can accumulate into the hundreds of dollars? Beyond the pushback against rising subscriptions, past the investigation of OER, and aside from consortial cost-sharing opportunity (all vitally important), there are things academic librarians and administrators can do immediately that may provide support -- or more accurately remove obstacles from the paths of students most vulnerable to the price of a college degree.

I have supervised Circulation and Systems departments at two academic libraries. I briefly coordinated systems, circulation, and interlibrary loan functions at Bowie State University, in Bowie, MD. BSU is the oldest HBCU in Maryland, with an enrollment around 5,600 students. I more recently served as the head of library systems, circulation, course reserves, and interlibrary loan at Muhlenberg College. In both roles, I worked with my coworkers and library directors to waive, reduce, or eliminate library fines, and to change any policy that blocks student access to material. Over time and with help, I came to understand the role better. Now, I'd ask other access services managers to protect students from any library-initiated actions that can inhibit academic success, such as library account blocks, registration holds, and especially engagement with private collection agencies.

Personally, I've grown to despise library fines and I am surprised by how normalized they are within library culture. I've worked through the professional literature, but it's thin compared to the ubiquity of fines and blocks. I considered formally summarizing it all here in this post, but that came to feel a lot like being closed in a musty cupboard. Basically, there is wide acknowledgement that few studies back up the effectiveness of fines as a deterrent. The few that make that claim hedge a lot. Most of the professional papers defending fines seem to settle on arguments of character building or other highly problematic justifications. Furthermore, those academic libraries that have greatly reduced or dispensed with fines have not observed negative impacts on collections, but have recorded evidence of increased goodwill. If anyone is genuinely interested in a bibliography, send me an email and I'll hook you up. Otherwise, please trust that I've done some homework, and that my positions here are supported by my own professional experience and several days of reading, thinking, and such.

So after all that, fines are merely crude barriers to access. As mechanisms of social engineering, fines are not especially effectual. Fines introduce ways of thinking about relationships between institutions, people, and resources that are corrosive and sneekily expansive. At their worst, fines and lost book penalties can be pernicious expressions of institutional bias. As a crass revenue stream fines don't amount to much, especially within academic library contexts. Deep down, I think most library folk realize all this, too. But periodic benevolence around fines -- often manifesting in can drives or other re-directed acts of philanthropy -- unfortunately ask the most from those students most vulnerable to unbudgeted expenses, fickle transportation, or unexpected demands on their scarce time.

If librarians and their boosters are truly committed to addressing the price students and families pay, then it's long past time to ditch library fines and ditch excessive processing fees for lost items. Similarly, if academic librarians are genuinely committed to student success, especially the success of our vulnerable students, then blocking access to physical loans or electronic materials resulting from accumulated overdues is an indefensibly bad and regressive idea. Let's break it down:

Books Are For Use

The root of my disaffection for library fines is my recognition that accumulated fines, account blocks, and various administrative holds are bariers to access. The mere perception of their possible impacts have been demonstrated to be barriers to access. Think about that for a second -- a patron may entirely avoid using library resources out of a fear of being fined. I believe that library materials are for use, and all bariers to use should be mitigated. When libraries erect these barriers themselves, it confuses me.

I believe that there are ways of dissuading non-return through other mechanisms of social engineering. But I'd prefer to find ways to incentivize materials return, instead. I also think that there are two entrenched obstacles to change. The first is college or university administration perceiving library-related fines and penalties as revenue. But the primary limitation on any library's ability to experiment with incentive-based techniques is the Integrated Library System (ILS), itself. I'll pick up on ways we need to change the ILS in my next post. As for wrestling administrators over eliminiation of fines, consider this:

In having any reliance on fine revenue to cover operating costs, [any] library would be tacitly supporting student failure.

Kathleen Reed, Jean Blackburn, & Daniel Sifton, Putting a Sacred Cow Out to Pasture: Assessing the Removal of Fines and Reduction of Barriers at a Small Academic Library

Ultimately, if you believe that books are for people, then you should let people have access to books. This is particularly clear in those passages of Paying the Price that document the frequency with which students forego their textbooks. Student account blocks and especially registration and/or housing holds as a response to accumulated library fines seem hard to justify when the library management formula is rebalanced to protect students whose institutional bonds are most precarious. Creating loan policies that make it possible for students to accumulate significant fines also makes no sense -- it is a dangerous way to set folks up for trouble. Worse still, fines may dissuade students from using a library's resources entirely. Students are already passing on textbooks, now imagine blocking use of the library as well.

A Fine is a Price

Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini call it what it is in their article, A Fine is a Price (Gneezy & Rustichini, 2000). In their paper, they prove that a 'deterence hypothesis' based around a monetary punishment does not have predictive positive results. Their paper engineers penalties for late pickup at a day care center, but the findings are germane to the mechanism of overdue fines, as well. Furthermore, a fine penalizing lateness introduces a psychological market where a borrower essentially buys more time at the point where they are either busy, tired, or otherwise dissuaded from returning materials. If Uber's peak pricing seems unfair, then consider overdue fines within that context, as well. The accumulated small, say 25 cent per day transactions, in the case of library engagement have disproportionate, unintended psychological consequences that degrade the positive relationship between libraries and students.

Dr. Goldrick-Rab also clarifies confusion between a cost and a price writing, "what is really affecting students and families, especially those enrolled in the public sector, are changes in the price of college—not the cost to institutions of providing education" (Goldrick-Rab, Anderson, & Kinsley, 2016. p. 39) [my emphasis].

The point at which a student begins paying the price of a fine is the point at which they no longer have the time to attend to the return of their materials. For some, perhaps this is a tax on laziness or indifference. But for other students, this may not be the case at all. This may be the result of over-committment to paid work necessary to make ends meet. Materials may become overdue because of an unanticipated lack of mobility, or the cold choice between food and transit. The buyer's remorse experienced at the Circulation Desk is genuine and probably universal no matter the reason for overdue materials. But for some students, the spectre of library fines or lost book replacement charges may be a very serious thing weighing disproportionately upon the choice to stay enrolled or to leave.

Forgive-A-Fine can drives viewed through the lens of a student experiencing food scarcity just makes them seem like calloused half-responses to genuine needs. Sending amassed fine revenues to 'external' charities like Tsunami relief, for instance, could be galling to a student or family struggling to keep tuition bills paid.

Registration blocks resulting from exceeding fines thresholds move further upward on my ladder of truly unacceptable academic library practices. Getting into the class section needed to accomodate work, family, or parental obligations is serious stuff. Inserting bureaucratic obstacles at this particular point of student vulnerability could, without great leaps of imagination, result in delayed graduation and/or additional expenses in the thousands of dollars.

I'm also not crazy about transcript holds -- another common institutional practice to clear fines accrued through library overdues, parking tickets, or residence life-related infractions. These are also not entirely benign ways to hold students accountable for the non-advertised price of their education.

Under zero circumstances would I support coordination with private collection agencies for any matter relating to accumulated overdue fines, book replacement fees, etc. Many are not aware that businesses like Unique Management Services -- a collection agency that specializes in chasing down library patrons even exist. This is a bright line for me, and once crossed libraries can become complict agents in the denial of mortgages, rental contracts, or employment opportunity.

So now that I am really far out on a limb, I'd also advocate that librarians and administrators take a renewed look at penalties for book damage and the size of processing fees for damaged and lost materials, too. I think careful engagement and a measured evaluation of the potential impacts these kinds of penalties may have on vulnerable students is a good idea. Wherever possible, I have promoted the idea of asking students what they consider to be fair restitution when materials are damaged or lost. It's a delicate matter, to be certain. But it opens a space for negotiation, and allows me as a librarian to present the needs and objectives of the library (i.e., managing a community's collection; supporting members who may also need the materials) while respectfully listening for indications that the accumulated penalties may tip some kind of balance. Finally, I think it is vital to have some pre-arrangement for determining with librarians involved in collection management efforts whether a lost or damaged item is likely to be weeded, anyway. Having a student pay for something that is never likely to be replaced seems like a terrible practice.

Finally, I want to be really clear about something -- there are LOTS of legitimate reasons for students losing books, and many of them are just not our business. Prying too far into the personal lives of students is not respectful or helpful. Consider for a moment some situation of domestic abuse or eviction. A student working to reassemble their personal lives needs understanding and compassion. Most librarians get this, I'm sure. But let's all agree we won't set students up to defend themselves at public service points, or pressure them to divulge things that others simply need not know.

I feel very lucky to have worked with so many like-minded staff. I have also had library directors who fully supported the elimination of fines, as well as greatly liberalizing the procedures around lost and damaged materials for students. Elimination of account blocks and registration holds was also possible (or never existed) within the departments I supervised. The two flirtations with private collections that I experienced never found footing, thankfully. But this isn't to say that pushing back against fines or blocks was particularly easy or quick. It seems like a 'no brainer' to me now, but change has come upon me slowly, and I likewise recognize that these changes can be difficult to achieve.

If you can't persuade directors or administrators to ditch library fines, excessive penalites, or blocks then organize around some fair and FAST procedure students can use to appeal them. Re-examine the processes that currently exist in your departments, and re-imagine experiencing them as students under pressures like those described in Paying the Price. Consider ways the interactions at public service points around fines or lost materials can be made more respectful and empowering. If you don't already conduct staff training around these interactions, consider asking for help from those on campus who know the whole story, and can help public services staff ensure their interactions reflect consideration of the whole student, not just the part that is late or has lost stuff. If at all possible, subvert the system -- I have always had a reputation as 'soft' on fines and very quick to waive them. As mentioned, I (we) learned to listen for what a student felt was a fair course of action around lost items. When possible, and when students could save a lot of money as compared to new items, I (we) permitted them to purchase online their own replacements.

Make any helpful change you can, but recognize that in an environment where food insecurity on campus is real, documented, and impacts millions, that a forgive-a-fine food drive might seem insufficient and insensitive. Ultimately, let us work together and consider first those students who stand to lose the most from fines and penalties.


This is a quasi-professional blog. Covers educational technology, digital literacy, instructional design, and often Domain of One's Own.