The library where I work has gone fine-free.
This is a not-new idea (but new to our little community) that libraries should be about making patrons feel welcome and wanting to check out materials without worrying about being penalized for returning items a few days late. There's been research that shows that some people stop going to the library when they owe a fine, and of course, this hits poorer patrons hardest.
Also, our library didn't really make that much money on fines anyway, and it took a lot of employee time to keep up with them, time that could be better spent on programming and community outreach.
We've been explaining the new policy for the past few weeks, and some people are having a more difficult time with it than others.
Man (eyeing the new DVD display): So, am I really not going to get fined if I don't return a movie on time?
Me: That's right. We're fine free.
Man (smirking): I used to bring these back on time because there was a fine. Now, why should I?
Me: Well, if you don't return the item at all, you'll get charged for it.
Man: Ha! I knew it! You're going to fine me!
Me: No. As soon as you bring the item back, we'll remove the charge from your account.
Man (shaking his head): And you think this is going to work?
Me: Most patrons bring items back regardless of the fine. They get it that if they want to see a movie or check out a book, they have to return it so other people can have a chance too.
Man (taking a movie and still smirking at me): Ooookay.
Woman: I have a fine on my account. I know you're fine free now, but this is an old fine and I want to pay it.
Me (looking up her account and assuming there's some massive fine): Hmm. It looks like you owe 20 cents.
Woman (fumbling around in her purse): That's right. Here's my money.
Me: You don't really have to pay that. It'll just sit on your account and won't keep you from checking materials out.
Woman (looking distressed and thrusting two dimes at me): I don't like owing money. Please let me pay what I owe.
So this is how it's been going for the last few weeks with people seeming to fall into two camps. The ones who are immediately thinking about how they can game the system and the ones who are freaked out about owing ten cents from ten years ago.
Maybe the smirky guy's right and the whole library system will collapse if we don't punish people.
But then, this happened:
A woman came in to use a computer. For the record, anyone can walk into a public library and use the computers, print something, copy or fax something. There's a small charge for copies but otherwise computer use is free. It's one of the most-used services at the library.
I asked the woman if she had a library card and she hesitated and then said no. I gave her a guest pass and off she went, but later, she came back to the desk.
Not quite looking at me, she whispered, I think I do have a library card, but I owe some fines and I haven't used my card in a while.
Well, let's look, I said. I entered her information into the computer and nothing came up. Nope, I told her. You're not in our system anymore. Sometimes the library will purge accounts that aren't used for a while. So you're good. No fines.
She didn't say anything. She still wasn't looking at me.
Do you want to get a new library card today? I asked.
I can get a card today? she said.
I walked her through the application and in three minutes I handed her a card. I did my spiel about how many items she could borrow and all of the programs we offered and gave her our little brochure, which still shows the list of fines.
Ignore all that, I said. We're printing up a new brochure soon. We're fine free now.
She looked at me and I realized she was crying. I pretended I didn't notice.
Welcome to the library, I said.