Thursday, April 16, 2009

Library Bytes: Overdue Books

Overdue fines for late library books is one of those things people groan about and consider to be a petty thing about libraries. The truth is, they can be a serious matter. In the case of academic institutions and municipal libraries, these books are owned by a governing body. For instance, a book borrowed from your local public library is actually paid for and owned by the city, so by returning it late, damaging it, or not returning it at all, you're dealing with the potential for having committed a serious crime against the city government. Believe it or not, people have been arrested for not returning library books!

Admittedly, it does seem a little ridiculous, but libraries just want their books back, not to horde them, but so that everyone can share in them. In a way, they need a system to ensure books are returned. After all, if there were no penalties for late books, would you ever return them? Of course, things are different if you damage or lose a book. Then the library is going to make you pay up (probably by forcing you to turn over your first-born child to the library to become a shelver).

I bring this up because two separate incidents regarding overdue books occurred today. The first is a news report on NPR. Washington and Lee University in Virginia had someone return an overdue library book. Why the big deal? Because it was stolen during the Civil War! Apparently, 145 years ago a Union soldier stole a volume from their library. A friend of a descendant of that soldier has returned the library book, with the stipulation that he not be charged any overdue fines, which the library accommodated. Can you imagine if they had fined him? It would have been cheaper for him to donate a new wing instead. You can hear a brief NPR interview with a librarian from Washington and Lee University about the bizarre story by clicking here.

The other incident took place while I was waiting in line at the circulation desk of the library (I'm purposely not mentioning which library). A woman before me was trying to return a library book that had been declared lost a few years ago. She had paid the lost book fine and all overdue charges, but now that she had found the book, she apparently wanted to return it and get her money back. The clerk didn't know what to do, so he called the Circulation Manager, who told her to keep the book. Presumably they wouldn't accept it back. This shocked me. When I was the Head of Access Services at a university library, we had a procedure in place for these kinds of situations. We called it a REFUND! I couldn't believe that this library wouldn't give her a refund. Amazingly, though, she just shrugged and walked out. All I can say if that I hope it's a book she actually wants to keep.

Remember that libraries want their books back so that everyone has an opportunity to use them. So the next time you check out a library book and discover it's overdue, don't freak out. Just return it and pay the fine. If you can't pay all of the overdue charges for financial reasons, talk to them. You may discover that they are willing to reduce the fees, as long as you promise to return the books on time in the future. And in case you didn't know this, you can renew books too. As long as no one else has a hold on them, usually you can keep renewing them. With most libraries, you can even do this over the Internet now and not have to return to the library itself. In other words, there's no excuse for having overdue books anymore. But if they are overdue, be brave. Return them and pay the fine. Because if you don't, they may send the police to your home!

UPDATE (4/18/09): So there definitely is something in the air about the issue of overdue fines for library books. University of Cambridge professor Mary Beard (a brilliant ancient Greek & Roman cultural historian) has a post on her blog A Don's Life related to this: "What's the point of library fines?" The Cambridge University Library reported a noted decrease in overdue fines, which they took as good news because it means students are returning books on time. However, Prof. Beard wonders how good this is, because she sees something to understanding the cost factor of books and going through the angst of respecting libraries and their materials. Regardless of her take, her last sentence is worth citing: "Perhaps the real truth here is that librarians have just got nicer."

3 comments:

James said...

Great post Roberto, but I'll take the unnamed library's side: after 2 years the regular fine would likely be more than the replacement cost already paid. So they were being nice! Plus it would already be in the "review for replacement" queue or whatever -- maybe they already bought a new copy.

- jamie

Ron said...

Let me jump in here as well. As a large public library in Jackosnville, Florida we have a strict policy of offering refunds only when the books that have been lost reappear within 90 days. In general, we have either already replaced witha new copy of the item, or it was an outdated edition. It is a rare occurence for the kind of situation you witnessed.
I agree with much of what you say, but the reality is space for everything and relevency to what current patrons want. It's changing all the time!

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