I have an overdue book at the public library. It’s a bit unusual since I’m usually pretty good about getting print books back, and also because I rarely borrow print books any more. Overdue fines are a traditional part of a library’s circulation model but as I thought about my fine, it got me thinking about how the purpose of fines may not exist in the same way any longer. Library policies like that may just be pushing people away from our physical collection and space without realizing any upside.

I’ll pay my fine today. But overdue fines as a punishment aren’t a philosophy I embrace. They create a negative interaction for a negligible amount of money. A number of public library systems have eliminated fines, some finding new ways to create pressure to return physical items without creating a penalty.

The reality is that I could also choose to not pay my fine today. The impact on me for the near future would be about the same: insignificant. And that’s what got me thinking. Why would libraries continue to use a process built around a negative interaction when it has been substantially diluted by library use?

Or put another way: library fines impact physical collection managed in your integrated library system’s circulation module. Unless your ILS is integrated with your non-physical collection in a way that registers the fine block, the fine merely pushes library patrons away from the physical collection.

Intended Consequences

While most people may associate overdue fines with public libraries, they are not uncommon in academic and courthouse law libraries. Their purpose is no less muddied than in public libraries. As with any policy, you should understand why you’re expending resources on it and whether it is having the impact you desire.

In my experience, fines are tied to physical items. You may have a circulating collection of law books. Or you may loan out laptops, or tablets, or ebook readers, or some other item. The fines tend to be a penalty for failing to bring back the item.

Unlike a public library, the replacement cost of a physical book may be higher than the cost of a lost piece of technology. If you allow the fineholder to continue to use the library until the replacement value is met, they may not run into any limitations for some time. Alternatively, if you block use as soon as a fine exists, you can create unintended negative impacts.

To circulate or not to circulate. It’s not uncommon for a law library to have no circulation policy. I tend to like circulation, if only because it provides a vent for lawyers who want to research elsewhere. Otherwise, you get lawyers coming in – as we did last week – and “self-circulating” (aka stealing) the contents of a looseleaf binder.

For example, one library I worked in had a fine system. There was a small amount where, as a courtesy, the lawyer could continue to use the library while a fine was owing. That works okay with a sole practitioner.

But if one lawyer at a firm generates a fine which accrues, then a second lawyer at the same firm may find that they run into limitations on their use. The bigger the entity, the more lawyers, the more complicated this becomes. You could treat every lawyer separately, but then the more lawyers you have, the easier it is to bypass the penalty of the fine.

Which begs the question about the fine’s purpose again.

Let’s put aside the threshold question of “to fine or not to fine”. What I’m more interested in is whether a fine can deter or inhibit library interactions in the same way if you have an increasingly non-physical service.

Penalty Integration

I checked out a paper-format book. I kept it too long. The public library circulation module logs that fact, and assigns a fine. Depending on the ILS, it can also send me warnings but it will almost definitely flag or prohibit my next physical format checkout.

In some situations, this has meant that self-checkout no longer works. Instead of the normal process, you’re told that you can’t complete self-checkout and need to go to a desk. The desk worker can then explain the issue.

The process is the same whether it’s a fine that’s due, a fine that is not yet due but will be, or an out of date library card. Go to the desk, interact with the person, take care of whatever business (or not), take or leave your physical item depending on the interaction.

Now, let’s say I drop the book off but don’t pay the fine. I don’t try to use any more physical content. Maybe that’s on purpose, maybe I only use one book a year. No physical collection use, no interaction check.

But I can still use streaming media through the public library. Or ebooks. While the fine blocks my physical use, it may not have any impact on my use of Overdrive or Hoopla or Kanopy. Unless there is a way for that fine signal to be transmitted to the vendor’s app and platform, it’s like I’m interacting with a different library.

ILS providers support APIs so that you can integrate circulation modules and external activity. But the public libraries I use only track physical collection in their circulation modules. If I want to know what ebooks I have checked out, I need to go to Overdrive web site or the Overdrive app. Access is binary: yes that library card number works or no it doesn’t.

If I had a large fine that impacted my ability to use the physical collection, it would not necessarily limit my ability to use databases, ebooks, or other non-physical items. The knowledge of the fine and the penalty (can’t interact with physical items) would only push me to the electronic resources I could still access.

The library would create a negative impact on me without actually curbing my behavior in a way it could with books. As a librarian I talked to about this noted, though, eventually my library card would need to be renewed. So eventually my access and my fines would collide and the penalty would be enacted.

But what if being squeezed out to digital only access weakens my bonds to the physical collection? I don’t normally have fines but the public library physical collection has become increasingly irrelevant to my needs. A fine doesn’t limit my ability to still engage with the library resources the way it used to.

In a law library environment, where issues of technology access by lawyers are less fraught than technology access for public library patrons, I could see where it pushes lawyers away from the physical collection.

Not because it doesn’t have value, but because, on balance, it’s more hassle to manage that relationship than to just deal with electronic resources. Ebooks that check themselves back in. Databases that are only about access, not about availability.

The result being that we exacerbate the value proposition issue of our physical collections. Do we have policies that deter our researchers from using our services or parts of our collections? And if we do, does the end result just shift their use elsewhere, creating a question of whether there’s any value in what is being avoided?

When I first conceived of this post, I thought there might be examples of non-physical penalties. But all I can come up with are penalties because of physical loss and deterrence. It makes me more certain that fines rarely create a positive outcome for a law library that applies them.