More Late Fees, More Problems

When checking the mail a couple of weeks ago, my wife was surprised to see a piece of correspondence from our local library.  After opening it, she was even further surprised to see that it contained a notice informing her that, if she did not pay her outstanding late fees (at that time amounting to approximately $17), she would be sent to collections.  She was given a week to comply.  We were both outraged.

On the one hand, $17 might sound like a hefty amount.  How irresponsible are we?  Well, it’s easier than you would maybe think.  In our library system, late fees are 30 cents per day, per item.  Just by way of example, if you have ten items checked out and are just one day late returning them, that’s $3.00 in late fees.  Do that a few more times, and you’ve generated quite the bill (or, as has happened to us here recently, go on vacation for a week, failing to realize that 12 items were due the day after you left, come home to $20+ in late fees in one fell swoop).Even more frustrating, the majority of these fees were actually not for items my wife had checked out for herself.  We have 3 young library patrons living in our home, none of them yet old enough to have their own library card (our library requires that you be 16 or older).  Whenever we go to the library, they frolic ecstatically through the aisles, picking out books willy-nilly.  I applaud and encourage this enthusiasm.  They will frequently check out 20 or 30 books each, and that’s fine with me.  I did the same thing when I was a kid.  I’ve never been able to get my hands on enough books.

This excitement for new books and love of learning spills over to our home.  The kids have library books on their nightstands, under their beds, in the playroom, in the living room, in our room, on our bookshelves mixed in with our other books, just about everywhere.  I think this is great.  The more good books around, the more likely they will want to read them instead of answering the Siren song of video games or mindless television.

But sometimes, in all this excitement, and hustle and bustle, it’s hard to keep track of where each of these books is at any given time.  Some books end up in the car.  Some books are taken in backpacks to school.  Some are secreted to friends’ houses.  Usually they are not lost completely (though this too has happened, which I will talk more about in a second).  But we may not know exactly where every book is on the exact day it is due.

I get due dates and I even get late fees.  Before we moved here, we lived near a library that adopted a much more laissez-faire approach to due date/late fee enforcement.  In fact, while checked out books theoretically had due dates, there were no late fees of any kind and, as a result, you could essentially keep a book forever.  The thinking was that they did not want to discourage learning through threat of monetary punishment (and there is something to be said for that, especially in lower income areas).  But the result was that the library’s shelves were almost completely bare.  And you could forget about any new acquisitions.  Many hold requests languished unanswered in perpetuity.

There has to be a happy medium, something between the the draconian regime we currently face and the pure honor system that clearly was not working at our last library.

It’s not even that $17 is some outrageous, unpayable amount of money.  We’re good for it.  And would have paid it eventually.  I know libraries are underfunded.  I know library workers are overworked and underpaid, and they do what they have to do to keep their libraries stocked and otherwise make up for those deficiencies.  But it was the threat to send us to collections that left us so incensed.  We are good library patrons.  We visit frequently.  We have donated numerous books.  Purchased items at the friends of the library sale.  We pay taxes.  My best friend is a librarian, and I applaud and encourage him every chance I get.

And maybe some of the fault is our own.  We are not completely organized and are not as diligent as we could be about checking due dates and keeping our checked out items in one or two specific locations at home.  But that seems kind of like a chore.  The library should be fun.  Librarians should be friends, not oppressive authority figures we should dread interacting with.  So what do we do?

One thing I will say, the libraries in our area have the best selection, the most knowledgable staff, and the most impressive facilities I have ever encountered.  I like all of those things, of course, but at what cost?  True, one nasty letter won’t offend us so much that we will stop going to the library completely, but that may not be true for everyone.  What is the answer?  What works or does not work in your area?

6 thoughts on “More Late Fees, More Problems

  1. I recently learned that our library in Toledo, OH has library cards for kids. There is a maximum number of items they can check out (I can’t recall what it is). The kids can accumulate fines, but they can “read them off” so you don’t have to pay them. I love this idea! I wish I had known about it sooner since we usually get fines for the kids items. I think we currently have to pay 20 cents a day for late books and 50 cents a day for a late movie. The movie rental is only one week long – I think I remember it being two weeks in Kansas. I’m always late on movies here! I think you’re right that there has to be some happy medium. And I can’t believe they threatened to send you to collections!

    • I love this idea. The whole point of the library should be to encourage reading. Your system sounds like a good compromise, particularly for young kids. I know they need to keep track of their books and it’s not fair for people to hoard or destroy or lose them. But I could seriously see people being discouraged from using the library at all for fear that they will rack up huge fines or, worse, be sent to collections.

      Here, it’s one week for movies and video games, three weeks for books and other materials. You can renew most things three times, unless there is a hold on it. The late fees are 30 cents for everything.

      Sending a lawyer to collections over $17 would be the biggest mistake they ever made. After about 5 minutes, they would have used up all of that $17 and then some responding to my countersuit for ruining my credit.

  2. This is the reason I stopped using the library. Our late fees are 25 cents per day per item. We would check out a small stack of books for my daughter, and we never seemed to be able to get them back on time. The library isn’t on the way to anything, so it’s always a special trip in that direction. For what I kept racking up in late fees, I found I may as well just buy the books.

    If libraries had more of a Netflix DVD like solution, where you can have one or two out at time, keep them as long as you want, and then turn those in before you can get more, that would work much better for us. The time restrictions and keeping track of when things are due just doesn’t work well for us.

    • Sad that you stopped using the library, but I totally get it. And it’s true. At 25 cents per day, especially for a kid book, pretty soon you’d be better off just buying it.

      I like your Netflix idea. Like I said in the article, I’ve seen the “no accountability” system put in practice, and it doesn’t work. But if you could have a couple of books, that would be great. It’s so frustrating when a new 500+ page book comes out, you are on the waiting list for months, you finally get it, but then have to return it 3 weeks later, unfinished, because there are 250 other people on the list behind you. Your Netflix system would fix that. Great idea!

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