Reexamining Library Overdue Fines and Fees
By Jeffrey Sabol, Long Beach City College
Long Beach City College began thinking about and examining our overdue fines policies because of the new capabilities of the Statewide Library Services Project (LSP) project. The new Statewide LSP or Alma allows for fines and fees to be exported to the cashier’s office at the end of each day. There are more complicated integrations utilizing different Application Programing Interfaces (APIs) that allow for the fines to be paid at the cashier’s office while also keeping those fines in Alma which allows for the fines and fees to be reduced or waived while also utilizing the fine amount to block a student from checking out books. It was in a meeting discussing this topic that I was asked to collect data about the different overdue fees charged at other California Community College libraries. I posted a question to the CC Librarians listserv (firstname.lastname@example.org) perhaps one of the most useful and knowledgeable places to gather almost any data, best practices and experiences about issues affecting our college libraries. Another reason that the library’s fines and fee are being reexamined at Long Beach City College is due to the economic situation affecting our students. Long Beach’s demographics are similar to Los Angeles’s where “one in every 5 of the Los Angeles Community College District's 230,000 students is homeless, and nearly two-thirds can't afford to eat properly, according to a new survey commissioned by the system's board of trustees.” 1 2 The third reason for reexamining our fines and fees policy was to eliminate the inherent problems and confrontations that occurred between students and the library circulation staff. If the fines and fees are paid at the cashier’s office and there is a formal appeals process in place then virtually all contentious interactions with students regarding fines would be eliminated, freeing up the staff to focus on one of the core missions of the library, namely the checking in and out of books and course reserve materials. (Long Beach City College Library’s circulation of course reserves makes up around 85% or circulating materials.)
Colleges that responded to my question3 reported a variety of fines from the most severe at $.10 a minute to $5 an hour for the first two hours to not collecting overdue fines at all. Colleges that included a rational about the fines and fees they did or did not collect universally wanted to ensure that the materials were returned on time so that they were available for other students. While the underlying motivation is the same across the libraries that responded there were different mechanisms in place to achieve this goal. The first and perhaps the most obvious would be the increase in overdue fines until the students’ monetary threshold was reached to ensure the timely return of course reserve materials.
College of the Desert expressed this thought as their justification of raising fines for course reserve textbooks. “Originally our textbook reserves circulated for 2 hours, in house use only, with fines of $1.00 per hour and a maximum accrual of $40.00. However, similar to other comments on this string, our students routinely began keeping the textbook beyond the 2 hours and happily paying the overdue fine. Several students commented the $1.00 per hour was worth being able to keep the book longer. Since we generally have only 1 copy of each textbook, this was unfair to other students which prompted the fine change. Since the fine change, we no longer have students abusing the privilege since the fines accrue rapidly. Having notice of the fines posted at our service desk and verbally informing every student with every checkout ensures our textbooks are returned on time.” This is a great result, the students return the course reserve textbooks on time and students are no longer monopolizing the textbook to the detriment of other students.
Another common theme was to only have course reserve textbooks check out for 2 hours, effectively making them library use only. Several colleges who have this policy charge no fines at all while still having the course reserve textbooks available to other students and returned on time. This is a very appealing option that would not only eliminate overdue fines but also ensures that the library does not have to deal with the plethora of possible circumstances that would prevent a student from returning an overnight course reserve textbook the following day. These can range from not having transportation to campus, lack of childcare, having to work overtime or additional hours at her or his job, caring for a parent or relative or being hospitalized themselves, which are all situations that affect many community college students.
The last option is to find another mechanism to ensure that students return their course reserve textbooks on time. As Mt. San Antonio College responded, “We do not charge any fines for anything. But students get a hold put on their accounts- so they cannot register for the next semester, or get a transcript, without meeting with one of the Deans or Library Department Chair. We found that the amount of work that went into managing fines came nowhere near making it worth the funds or change in behavior. We see very few repeat offenders. This is tracked in the Deans’ office so we know, and if we do see it, particularly for reserve items, the student could lose their borrowing privileges.” Meghan Chen from Mt. San Antonio College elaborated on their process. “We found that meeting with a dean or the department chair gave us an opportunity to meet with students and find out about the circumstances that surround the loss or damage to library materials. In most instances, we used the opportunity to refer students to campus or community resources that may help address other basic needs. We also use the meeting to ensure students know the library welcomes their return use/visit and to thank them for helping us ensure the library is here for all students. We document all of the meetings with the students signing that they understand the policy clearly and will not repeat the negative behavior (losing/damaging materials). Our college library has seen a much higher materials return rate than when we simply relied on fines.”
Many years ago when I was employed at Loyola Law School the Director of the library, Daniel Martin, made the decision to remove all overdue fines for library materials including course reserve material and instead have students who abuse this policy meet with him. His reasons for the change were two-fold, the dislike of the “idea of having the circulation/reserve staff handle cash. It’s always messy (lost money means finger-pointing and excuses) and besides, the tracking/recording/securing/reporting requires much more staff time than it’s worth” and he always preferred use over non-use. As much as possible he wanted to remove all barriers to use. “For book use that means getting rid of fines. For library space use it means getting rid of the food and drink rules. If students prefer to study at Starbucks, where they can have a coffee and pastry, rather than my super clean library-------then I have done something really wrong.” Dan went on to add,“ The overdue-book enforcement issue hasn’t proven to be too onerous. If a student keeps a reserve study guide/exam prep book out too long on the day before a test, it hurts other students in the class by denying them access. We consider that academic misconduct. That’s like cheating. It’s a big deal. I rarely have to talk to anyone about this.” 4
Perhaps the last approach is the most forward thinking, using the opportunity to speak with a student about her or his overdue reserve textbook and finding out the cause of an item being overdue while also educating the student about the need to have these books available to all students as well as connecting them with other campus resources that will help them meet their basic needs and succeed academically.
I think one must begin to ask if there is data supporting any of the three possible solutions. While not much is written about the subject of overdue library fines and fees, Johnson Depriest’s study for the Colorado State Library found that “one is left to conclude that policy decisions surrounding the collection of late fees from patrons cannot be supported by hard data.”5 The data that we do have is that our students at California Community Colleges are experiencing huge obstacles to attaining their academic goals with an alarming rate of students who are experiencing food and housing insecurity possibly choosing between buying at textbook or paying for food, gas or other necessities. Should libraries ever place unequal barriers to information, where financially advantaged students who are able to pay the fines and fees are treated differently than those who are not able to so easily pay the overdue fees? Currently Long Beach City College has no plans to eliminate all fines and fees but in the name of use over non-use we do plan to eliminate overdue fines on all books in the main stacks. We are also examining all three approaches to reach the end goal of having these materials available to students the most effective, efficient and equitable way possible.