Fines: Incentive or Punishment? – Are they good or bad for libraries?

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I am a negligent patron.   I returned several books a couple days late about six months ago.   My patron record shows a $2.00 fine, which I ignore each time I go into the library.    My branch has moved to an entirely self-service RFID checkout system, (see my previous Blog Post), so I don’t speak to library staff on the way out, and they have no chance to ‘remind’ me of the two dollars I owe.

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Why did libraries start charging fines?   Originally, fines became a tool for encouraging proper library behavior – an incentive for patrons to get their books back on time.   Library books, which are shared resources for the benefit of all patrons in the community, should be available to all patrons equally.   The mechanism to encourage sharing was to assign due dates when an item was checked out:   books may circulate for three weeks, DVDs for two, etc.

But if a library has due date policies, there must be some sort of enforcement; otherwise the policy has no teeth and it won’t be taken seriously.   Borrowing library materials is free if they’re returned by the due date, fines are a punishment for patrons who return materials late.

What about the money?   Fines collection in libraries opens a huge can of worms, on both a practical and a philosophical level.   Let me describe some of the issues:

  • Who keeps the money?

In some jurisdictions, any fines and fees that are collected are retained by the library itself.   Their materials, their fines, their money.   There’s an incentive for library managers to collect more fines, (or, perhaps, waive fewer fines), to keep the income stream coming and to be able to afford to purchase more titles.

In other jurisdictions, the money collected doesn’t stay with the library – rather, it is turned in to the City or County and is placed in the General Fund.    The library doesn’t see a cword-imageent of it.   The library’s budget remains the same whether it takes in $100 in fines or $10,000 in fines.     In this situation, there’s no benefit to the library; just additional cost.  Is it worth the library’s time and effort to collect money? Both scenarios may raise ethical questions about fine collections.

  • Are fines too large a portion of the library’s budget?

Fine collections vary, from month to month and year to year.   If patrons behave better (that is, follow the incentives to return materials on time) then the library will take in less income and the budget may suffer.   Counting on a variable income stream for a core budget may work against the long-term interests of the library.

Personal experience:    About fifteen years ago, I was the Assistant Director at the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library, a system with 30+ branches.   We charged fines and fees, like most other libraries.  The chairman of our Library Board asked me to prepare a historical report of all the outstanding fines and fees owed to the library.    That report showed that we were owed $431,000 – if we could collect these fines and fees.    He began to salivate at that number – thinking of new programs that could be started and hires that could be made.

We quickly disabused him of those dreams.  We had to remind him that much of that $431,000 were old fines that the County wouldn’t let us collect, and that it was likely that many of the patrons who owed money had moved out of town (or maybe were dead).  And we also noted that the money – if we could collect it in the first place – was a one-time cash infusion, and not a sustainable income stream.

Collecting monword-imageey isn’t cheap. Fine collection comes with its own costs, both direct and indirect.   These include:

    • staff time to collect money and make change
    • staff time to run credit cards or receive checks (if allowed by the library)
    • staff time to balance the cash drawer at the end of a shift
    • Taking protective steps against theft (internal and external)
    • transporting the cash to the bank
    • (for larger facilities) contracting with an armored car company for cash pickup
    • Paying Unique Management for collection services (see below)

Does the library make money in fine collection?

What about the community?

Libraries want to be viewed as community centers – safe gathering places for adults, but also for youth.    Coming to the library, borrowing books, using the computers, playing chess – these are putting the library as a welcoming and nurturing place in the community.

Personal experience:   About two months ago, I spent an afternoon on the Bookmobile that was visiting a lower income neighborhood of a city in Southern California.  As we arrived at each stop, children and their parents thronged the bookmobile; in the hour that we were at one stop, dozens of books were checked out, two or three at a time, by residents.    Middle school and high school youth came as well and walked out with arms full of books.

Does charging fines, particularly in lower-income areas, work against the library goal of being a welcoming place in the community?

Getting serious about enforcement

As mentioned above, fines and fees often make up a non-trivial portion of a library’s budget.  When library users collectively owe large sums of money, some libraries have moved to aggressively collect.

  • Unique Management Services, Inc., works with hundreds of libraries to ‘gently encourage’ patrons to return their materials and/or pay their fines. Libraries decide on the threshold at which a patron will be reported to Unique (for example, total fines that exceed $50), along with the degree of aggressiveness that Unique will use.   In extreme cases, Unique will report patrons to the national credit bureaus.   [Note:   Several VERSO customers use Unique Management Services, and VERSO supports data export for this function.]
  • A more severe tactic for collecting library fines and fees is to have the local police arrest people with overdue items or fines. See the following:,, and

Although the library no doubt has the legal authority to arrest patrons with library materials, does this tactic (and the newspaper and television attention it creates) work to the benefit of libraries?

Are there alternatives to monetary fines?

Libraries abword-imagesolutely have an interest in managing their collections to benefit their entire user community.    But if charging fines is politically or socially infeasible, what alternatives to libraries have?

  • Libraries have, for years, put caps on fines, usually called Fine Limits. VERSO users can manage these in Circ Admin.    The library can configure a maximum fine, based on the patron type, material type, and shelf location of the item.    So, although the calculated fine for a 10-week overdue item might be $65.50, the library’s Fine Limit policy might be to charge no more than $15.00.   (which,       perversely, gives the patron a financial incentive to keep items out even longer!)
  • Reading to pay off the fine amount: Some libraries offer children a trade – come into the library and read for a half hour, and we’ll subtract a dollar from your overdue fines.   This seems like a win-win situation.   The child is encouraged to read (a library goal), and the library’s policies are carried out (there are rules that must be followed).
  • Collecting Canned Goods or something similar, which are then donated to a Food Bank or some similar agency. This is another example of a win-win approach.
  • Serving time. No, this doesn’t mean going to jail.   It might mean asking the patron with fines to help shelve items, or empty a book-drop, or do some helpful activity in the library for several hours to work off the amount owed.


Now that I have so eloquently laid out the issue of library fines, I will make it a point to visit my local branch this weekend and clear my record. 🙂






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