Thursday, December 20, 2007

Overdue Fines - Love 'Em? Hate 'Em?

Librarians hate to receive complaints. We became librarians because we want to provide people with books, information and other resources. So that's why it's always difficult to receive a complaint about some aspect of our service.

At the library system board's meeting on Monday night, a letter from a customer who was upset about the system's $2 fine rate for video recordings was reviewed. The board agreed to review the policy to see if it still makes sense.

The board is very much aware that the system's video overdue fee is higher than its other fine rates. This is part of the reason why it has remained at $2 for more than 20 years. (Our other fine rates have regularly increased to keep up with the cost of inflation.)

The $2 overdue fee was established over 20 years ago for two reasons:

1. At that time all video recordings were prohibitively expensive. Thus, the library system was concerned about covering any possible losses of public funds that were invested in the collection;

2. In relation to other parts of the collection, the video collection was very small, yet the items were in very high demand by our customers. Thus, a higher fine rate was set to encourage people to return items quickly, making them available for others to borrow.

Since then, the price of most popular videos (now DVDs) has dropped significantly (some of the boxed sets, or recordings on special topics are still expensive). However, costs for processing and maintaining the collection remain high due to the need for sturdy circulating cases, theft control devices and cleaning/repairing machines to keep the materials in working order.

More importantly, the library system still faces the challenge of trying to meet the public’s very high demand for the collection with a relatively small number of titles. Unfortunately, current funding levels do not allow us to purchase as many titles as we really need to meet the public’s ever-increasing interest in all parts of our collection.

Thus, experience tells us that higher fine rates do encourage people to return the items promptly. It also provides us with revenue to purchase more titles and maintain the collection.

This is where financial reality sets in. Last year, the system received about $320,000 in library fines. In our current funding climate, those funds go a long way to providing all kinds of materials for our customers.

There are a number of libraries in the nation that have actually eliminated fines. Frankly, this is something that I think we would love to be able to do; but each year we are finding it more and more difficult to balance our books. So, overdue fines remain an important part of our budget.

As the library system board reviews its video recording fine rate policy early next year, we welcome your comments.