Unsolicited Rant: Why Fines Must Die



The joint chiefs have been tracking conversations about the practice of fines in libraries for a very long time. We’ve learned from experiences in our own libraries, from presentations and articles, and from threads on groups and listservs. Friends, it is safe to say that we have FEELINGS about fines. This week we want to thank Ingrid Abrams for a recent SU thread that made us finally decide to post this rant that’s been so long in the making.


We understand that fines are a tradition that have found their way to the heart of how most public libraries operate and that is not easily changed. This rant does not offer solutions, but we hope that it raises questions. We want to encourage discussion on this topic and we’re inviting all of our blogger friends to use their own voices to revisit this practice. We want to see a variety of perspectives and that’s why this time, our rant is a collection of thoughts instead of just one person’s perspective. Please, PLEASE feel free to borrow the image from this post and help us create a blog hop that explores this crucial topic.


Cory: Fines are stupid and classist and punish the people who most need the library. Also they don’t make any sense. Who cares if someone has a book for 2 days longer than they were supposed to? Or 2 weeks? Or 2 years? Like 90% of the time (made up statistic) it’s a book no one else wants, anyway. They’re harming literally no one. What if people don’t have transportation to come to the library, so they need to take the bus, and then they get here and find out it’s either spend their bus fare home or not be able to check out? Nope. What if kids are shuttling between relatives and can’t find their books? Nope. It’s not my job to punish people for their life circumstances and it’s CERTAINLY not my job to find ways to restrict access to information.


Brytani: Fines disproportionately affect our under-served populations due to reasons like lack of mental acuity in the elderly and disabled, poor public transportation systems, cultural differences in perspectives on social responsibility and how libraries work, and pure frequency of check-outs. Make no mistake; libraries do not live in a vacuum. When fines cut off any patrons with critical needs, we stop the flow of benefits to the community that libraries provide–things like higher graduation and employment percentages and lower incarceration rates. In the short term, the library collects $12 from someone living on unemployment, but in the long term, we lose their trust. If we use financial punishments to create desired behaviors in our users, they will not learn that we want to see them succeed and that we will move heaven and earth to see it happen. They will not learn that they can ask us for help in expunging their criminal record or securing a green card for a spouse. Instead, we increase the likelihood that they will continue to remain under-served, drawing on tax-supported welfare programs–a much greater expense over time for governments at large. Fines are a short-sighted solution with costs that are invisible, but they have very real financial consequences for society. We cannot reach our full potential for having a positive impact on the community unless we are willing to turn away from punishment and move towards building relationships.


Mary: Fines are a barrier to access. Period. Our patrons most in need of our resources are denied access (or choose to deny their children access) when fines are levied. It seems contrary to our purpose of providing free and open access to all. We talk about how important it is for kids to have books in the home in order to become readers. They need to be able to pick up books whenever they want. But if a parent’s choice is between buying groceries or paying library fines so their child can check books out from the library, well, it’s easy to guess which one they’ll choose. I have, in my 17 years as a librarian, had conversations with parents who were unable to come to the library to return materials due to hospital stays but sincerely wanted to find a way to pay them so that their children could use the library (I waived most, if not all, of her fines). I’ve also heard parents not allow their child to take home a book because “you lost the last one and we had to pay for it.”  Which would we rather have? Children who have access to books and ideas and knowledge who become readers and productive citizens or children who think the library is a privilege they don’t deserve and who don’t have access to books? I know what I’d choose, every time.


Kendra: Fines prevent access to information and materials, plain and simple. The money earned from fines comes at the much higher cost of access. Libraries without fines are more pleasant to visit and work in, and everyone feels welcome rather than shamed or burdened because their life is happening. When fines are in place, children are often punished for their caregivers’ transgressions. An 8 year old cannot drive themselves to the library to return an overdue DVD but that fine is going on their card, regardless. Even if they are living with their homebound Grandmother this week because their mom is not currently capable of caring for them. Fines are a sign of white privilege and do not allow for real life. If libraries need additional income (they always do), fines are not the way to secure it.


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