It has happened to all but the most organized among us. We’re minding our own business, cleaning out a closet or reorganizing the bookshelf, when it suddenly thrusts itself upon us.
That lost library book we had almost managed to convince ourselves no longer existed. The book that became the second reason we’ve avoided going to the library since the waning days of the second Bush administration. (The first being Amazon, of course.)
At this moment, every library delinquent faces the same dilemma: return the erstwhile book, or put it back in whatever box it came from and pretend this whole unpleasant incident never happened. Weird questions start running through one’s mind: “Does the library stop trying to collect the fines at any point? Does compounding interest accrue? Can they charge a fine that exceeds the book’s replacement value? Can I be arrested for holding onto a library book for over a decade? Do I need a lawyer?”
As it turns out, library fines, generally speaking, don’t become a major financial hurdle. According to recent reports in The Wall Street Journal, the average fine is about 17 cents per day that a book is late – and are capped at $5, $10 or the cost of the books borrowed. But, as St. Paul Public Library Director Catherine Penkert told the publication, it’s not just about the money.
It’s the shame of having to face a librarian and sheepishly have to pull out a dollar bill and admit you are not able to handle the simplest possible adult responsibility.
“I didn’t even want to tell you, ‘I have fines,’” Penkert told the Journal of what she normally hears at work while collecting library fines from friends and family in the community, who usually wear a rather pained hangdog expression.
But perhaps the scourge of library fines is migrating to the past. This week, Chicago became the largest metro area to officially say no to library fines – joining St. Paul, Minnesota; Dallas, Texas; and Oakland, California – in what has become known of late as the library fee amnesty movement that has been quietly (they are libraries after, all) picking up steam in 2019.
Because libraries need customers to keep coming in – and they have been finding out in recent years that a late fee and a disapproving librarian create a very bad customer experience … but one that is pretty easily rectified.
Why Libraries Are Killing the Fines Nationwide
In a digital world – where most of the classics can be downloaded for free, reference books are rapidly becoming a tool of antiquity and digital streaming has largely eliminated the need for a physical hub for free access to entertainment media – libraries are struggling to bring users in the door. One apparent solution, according to Curtis Rogers, a spokesman for Urban Libraries Council, is to get rid of the things that are actively driving people away.
“We’d rather have you come to the library and engage in our services,” Rogers noted.
Catherine Penkert concurred, noting that in a world where consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to reading materials – many of them free – making the library an unpleasant place to be is far from an optimal strategy.
“All the rules that we have, and the fines and the fees, they’re making libraries really hard to deal with,” she said. “Putting everybody in this spot where they’re going to be fined to death is not helpful.”
Moreover, libraries can’t back up their fines with much in the way of force. In the not-too-distant past, they have been known to play hardball – they would hand unpaid fines off to specialty collection agencies that dealt purely with library fines. Customers who didn’t cough up the money owed could actually see their credit score take a hit, and find themselves locked out of things like car loans or even mortgages, simply because an overdue book situation got way out of hand. These days, however, that is a much, much less likely occurrence, and the credit bureaus do not use library data or parking tickets to generate consumers’ scores.
Incidentally, most people don’t actually know this, according to Equifax – which means they get a lot of questions from panicked library delinquents worried they are about to be booted from mainstream credit markets.
“The topic has come up so frequently that we decided to include it among our credit myths,” said Nancy E. Bistritz-Balkan, spokeswoman for Equifax.
The specialty credit collectors for library fees still exist – but in 45 states, they are unable to put the fine data onto a credit report. And even in the states where they are allowed to do so, they usually don’t.
Unique Library, based in Indiana, is one such specialty credit firm. As a rule, they do not try to wreck library patrons’ credit – instead, they employ what they call a “gentle nudge” policy, aimed at inspiring people to either return their books and pay the fine, or just buy the book. They claim to have collected more than a billion dollars in fines and late fees for overdue materials on behalf of nearly 2,000 libraries in five countries.
Will Getting Rid of Overdue Fines Save the Library?
It is probably a lot to expect that removing overdue book fees – and the anxiety surrounding them – will utterly solve for the library’s problems in the modern world. There are plenty of people who fail to visit the library every week not because they owe money, but purely due to lack of interest and an abundance of other options.
But as avid payments peeps, we can’t help but observe that dropping the fees is often an effective method of boosting consumers’ enthusiasm, which is why it’s a method that is popping up more and more often.
Over the summer, Discover captured a lot of headlines and attention with the announcement that it was dropping the fees on all of its deposit accounts – including fees for insufficient funds and excessive withdrawals, as well as penalties for falling below minimum balances and making stop-payment requests. The elimination also extends to charges for monthly maintenance, checkbook orders or replacement debit cards.
“Helping our customers lead better financial lives is at the heart of everything we do, whether that’s removing fees, offering industry-leading rewards or consistently delivering distinctive customer experiences,” said Arijit Roy, vice president of deposits at Discover, in the release. “Removing all deposit account fees was an easy decision for us based on our commitment to offer the most rewarding banking products in the industry.”
Affirm’s Chief Product Officer Jack Chou told Karen Webster in a conversation last year that in attempting to build an honest and transparent financial company, fees were the first thing on the chopping block, because at the end of the day, they just lead to consumer confusion and anxiety. When there are hidden and built-in fees, Chou noted, the customer never really knows what they are going to pay, and thus is always just a little uncomfortable.
“The one thing we kept hearing from customers over and over again,” Chou said, “was that their trust in our brand went beyond that loan they got that one time.”
And, while the issues of a library are in many ways different from those of a POS lender or bank, one can see how the issue of trust is a common thread. The customer who doesn’t trust herself to return a library book – or the process of being fined for it – will start avoiding the library. The Wall Street Journal had story after story about people who checked out a book in their youth, got hit with a fine along with library failure shame, and then never went back to the library.
The customer who goes in and believes there is no way going to a library will end in anything but a peaceful afternoon of reading, on the other hand? They might actually make the journey – or at least not reject the possibility out of fear that they won’t be able to make eye contact with the librarian.
And at least the early data on the subject bears that out: Since St. Paul, Minnesota killed overdue fines, some branches have seen a double-digit percentage increase in circulation. Citywide, circulation is up nearly 2 percent – which may not sound like much, but it is the first increase the city has seen in 10 years.
And, it seems, patrons are not failing to return the books – or at least no more so than they were before.