Friday, June 08, 2012

The cost of applying fines...

..a mother with her three young children explains that coffee accidentally spilled on the picture book while she was reading to her youngest daughter. Her daughter was excited and knocked the cup out of her hand. The clerk takes the picture book, opens it, examines the pages and points out the damaged areas to the mother. 'We have to charge you for this, you know, we can't repair it. We will to order another copy and when we reorder there is a processing charge as well.'

The mother again explains that this was an accident, and adds that she can't afford to pay for the book. The clerk takes the book to the librarian at the reference desk, where the book is again examined and the book's circulation statistics are checked. The librarian and clerk discuss publicly the best course of action: perhaps waive the processing fee, perhaps talk to the patron about a payment plan, or perhaps negotiate a one-time payment of half the price of the book.

And while this is happening, the mother waits at the checkout desk. Her embarrassment is visible to everyone in the area. Her face is flushed, and she has gathered her three children close to her. Her eyes don't lift from the counter top. She is quiet and still. When the clerk returns and discusses payment options the mother says again that she cannot afford to pay for the book.

And so, while this mother should be applauded for bringing her children to the library and encouraged to continue reading to her children, she is instead publicly humiliated and made to confess over and over that she cannot afford to pay for the picture book. Will this family be comfortable returning to the library?

If the library does not charge for the damaged book, it loses about $25.00. When the library fails to recognize situations where charging replacement costs means losing library patrons, it loses the opportunity to participate in the life of the patron and the patron's family. By choosing to make a $25.00 replacement cost more significant than the role the institution can play in the social, developmental, and community life of the family, the library forfeits its role as a community and literacy advocate and leader.

It will cost the library more than $25.00 to convince this mother to return to the library. It will cost the library more than $25.00 to persuade this mother that the library is a welcoming community place willing to meet her needs and support her family. It will cost the library more than $25.00 to mount literacy programs aimed at her children, who will not benefit from regular library visits and programs. And when these children are adults, it will cost the library more than $25.00 to convince them that the library is a welcoming and supportive place for their children.
Breaking Barriers: Libraries and Socially Excluded Communities by Annette DeFaveri
This sort of thing happens a lot more than it should in libraries, frankly. I'm not sure why it is, but I've seen it happen firsthand. Hell, I've probably done it, myself, without meaning to. I work in a library where I'm completely empowered to waive fines without fear of censure or reprimand. As far as I know, I can waive fines for just about any reason I want. When I worked at the circ desk more often, I probably waived or reduced fines more often than I enforced them. You can't waive all fines all the time, or you negate the benefit of having a fine based system (which is, you know, to encourage people to return the damn materials on time so that other patrons can access them), but there's no reason to enforce the fines 100% of the time, either.
We shouldn't need to think about it in terms of the cost to get a patron to return, but it's good to be able to do so, since there are some people who wouldn't get it otherwise.

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