Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No Late Fees Means Fewer Lost Books for Alachua County


Every so often I spot someone at my local library who is paying a late-return fine that almost equals the cost of the book they are returning. I often wonder why, at that point, they don't just kick in the last buck or two and keep the book for themselves. Now I see that one Florida county library system has a policy of never charging late fees and that the result is that they are losing fewer books than ever before. That makes perfect sense to me the more that I think about it. Not having to face a cash penalty upon returning a book late might make some people more likely to return a book than not. It sure works for Alachua County, Florida.
The county turned over a new leaf after a 1970s study found it cost an average of $21,000 in staff time to handle $13,000 in income generated by fines annually. Shortly after the change, library staff found that more materials were being returned to the libraries once patrons no longer faced fines.

Nearly three decades later, library officials are still convinced the policy is ultimately a more cost-effective way to manage the 2.85 million items that are circulated annually.

According to Phillis Filer, public services administrator at the Headquarters Library in Gainesville, Alachua County libraries get back a higher percentage of loaned materials today than they did when fines were in effect.

Filer added that since the change, Alachua County libraries have lost fewer books than other libraries that still charge fines, although exact numbers could not be located.
My library branch charges 10 cents a day for overdue books and 25 cents per day on overdue DVDs or CDs. It takes a while for the fines to add up to much money at those rates but I wonder what the tipping point is for some patrons. Do they avoid returning a book that has $10 worth of late fees attached to it? Or is it at the $25 level that approaches the cost of many books? Maybe more libraries should try the Alachua County approach rather than hiring private bill collectors who resort to making credit agency reports on patrons who have unpaid library fines. Interesting.

19 comments:

  1. Yeah...I'm one of those people that always ends up having to pay 30 and 40 cents per book because I'm always late!! I'd love to see that whole thing abolished!

    Great article!

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  2. My problem is that I never notice the late fees because they usually never add up to more than about 30 cents and they just post them to my account. I eventually do notice them when I'm online to my account details but they've never pushed me to pay them. I suppose that's good because it means that they aren't spending more money to collect the little fines than they are worth but I find it embarrassing sometimes to pay up several weeks after I've returned the book in question. :-)

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  3. You can have the best of both worlds. At my library, August is "Fine Amnesty Month." Any book returned that month, no matter how late, has it's fine forgiven.

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  4. That usually draws in some long lost books, doesn't it, Pam? I've heard of books that have been out for several years showing up during one of those amnesty drives.

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  5. Very interesting. I don't know if that would work in my area, where there are piles of holds on things. No due dates (which is what this amounts to) would make waiting times for popular items untenable.

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  6. That's a good point, Sylvia. It's already bad enough that my system lets us wait for up to two full weeks to pick up a hold item. Sometimes there are only three or four copies of a book or DVD in the whole system and it can take 6 months to get a crack at it. Anything that would make that process even slower is something I'd really have to think long about before I agreed to it.

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  7. Interesting. Maybe it depends on the area. I am one who usually gets my books back on time but I don't notice too many people paying fines when I am in the library which is usually a couple times a week.

    However, my library did recently change hold times from 2 weeks to 5 days to help alleviate just the problem you describe, Sam.

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  8. Five days seems pretty reasonable, Amy...seven might be better since some people can probably only get there on weekends but 14 seems crazy to me.

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  9. I am lucky my local library is less than a 5 minute walk away. I have only had a late fine of 5p once in my entire life. If I got in my car I would have a choice of an additional 4 public libraries within a 10 minute drive.
    I must give thanks to an American citizen for one of these libraries; Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland but emigrated to the USA as a small child. He made shedloads of money but never forgot his roots; he built many public libraries in the UK, I salute his memory!

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  10. It must be great to be surrounded by libraries, Nick. When I lived in Twickenham I would walk the mile across Richmond Bridge and over to the Richmond library. I killed many a Saturday morning there and remember it fondly...but it was the only library close to me.

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  11. Sam...not sure where to put this so here goes; it's a BBC quiz they developed when leading literary firms failed to recognise the work of Jane Austen when it was sent in by a prankster.
    PS...for this sort of item I feel you may find interesting do you still have the same gmail account as your previous blog?



    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6906540.
    stm

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  12. Thanks for the link, Nick.

    The gmail address is still the one I use for the blog. If you ever forget it, it's included in my personal profile link at the top of the blog page.

    I'll take a look at the link in a few mnutes...sounds like fun.

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  13. Do they waive the book replacement fee for books that are never turned in? I lost a book and after two months of not turning it in, my library charged me for it.

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  14. It sounds as if they do waive that fee, but it's not real clear to me so I may be making a bad assumption.

    My own system does waive fees that total more than the value of the book if the borrower admits that it's lost and not just late...but they fine up to the value of the book for the lost item. I've wondered if they don't still make money on that, though, because I don't think that library systems pay full retail for the books they acquire.

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  15. BTW, Factotum, it's good to see you blogging again. I missed you while you were taking your break. :-)

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  16. Thanks, Sam! It's good to be back.

    I think my library makes money on lost book fees. I asked if I could just replace the book I lost (because I found it on Amazon way cheaper than what the library was charging) and they told me no.

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  17. That's an interesting reaction from your library people. Sounds like they maybe didn't intend to replace their copy of that exact book and were going to use the money for something else. Too, I do think that they seldom pay full retail for a book, so there probably was indeed a little profit to be made in that transaction.

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  18. None of the three libraries I use charge late fees. I appreciate that so much! But I do understand why people might claim a book is lost rather than pay the fee. My kids once lost a Barney video from the library behind the entertainment center. The library didn't inform me, and I only found it when we moved. I brought it back, and they charged me $45! I asked if I could please just buy the video, and they said no, now that it had been returned, I must pay the fine or (gasp!) never be allowed to check out books again! So yeah, I really see how libraries without fines have fewer "lost" books.

    Another thing that might work is simply capping late fees at the cost of the book.

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  19. That's a scary story, Dewey. I would have been plenty ticked to have to pay more than the value of the item being returned late, but there's not much you can do when they threaten to cut you off permanently if you don't pay.

    I agree about capping the fine at the value of the item. To me, that's the only fair way to administer fines like these.

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