Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2020 Issue

To Fine or Not to Fine – That Is the Question (But What Is the Answer?)


I guess it's time to return this book.

A hallowed tradition of library science could become an endangered species. We are talking about the ubiquitous practice of leveling overdue book fines on borrowers who do not return their books by the required date. To most of our readers, this probably doesn't sound like much of an issue. Most of you have probably paid one of these at sometime or other yourself. Usually the charge is something “nominal,” a buck or two, maybe pocket change. Most of our readers are book collectors, and book collectors are generally middle class people or higher. The fine is inconsequential, the greater punishment being the embarrassment of explaining yourself to a librarian.


However, what an increasing number of libraries have come to realize is that there are many readers for whom these fines are neither nominal nor inconsequential. These are book readers who are poor. For them, the library is even more important than it is for those of more substantial means. They have no other access to books to read. When a book becomes overdue, and they don't have money to pay the fine, they hold on to the book even longer. They are afraid to bring it back, so the fines mount, putting payment of the debt farther out of reach. They never bring the book back. Meanwhile, they are cut off from the library, so they lose all of their access to books. But, people living in poverty also desperately need education to pull themselves out of poverty. Their children need it even more. It is a vicious circle that some can never escape.


Early last year, the American Library Association, recognizing the problem, issued a resolution entitled Resolution on Monetary Library Fines as a Form of Social Inequity. In it, the ALA says “that the charging of fees and levies for information services, including those services utilizing the latest information technology, is discriminatory in publicly supported institutions providing library and information services.” They also point out that library fines take an inordinate amount of staff time imposing and collecting them. The Resolution concluded that the ALA “adds a statement to the Policy Manual that establishes that 'The American Library Association asserts that imposition of monetary library fines creates a barrier to the provision of library and information services.'”


Now, the easy answer might be to say why don't people just return their books on time? The answer is the same as it is for people who can afford to pay the fine. They forget, lose track of the due date, misplace the book, get sick, don't have access to transportation on the right day, or it was borrowed by a child not aware of the requirement. The amount of unpaid late fees on virtually every library's account book attests to the fact this happens to good, honest people all the time.


In the past, libraries have often had amnesties where patrons could return overdue books without incurring a fine. These have regularly returned many books to the shelves the library probably never would have seen again. Indeed, the number of late books typically returned during fine free periods should have been a tip as to the extent of the problem of people not returning books because of the affordability issue. The classic overdue book case was that of Phebe Webb, who borrowed a copy of the ironically titled Forty Minutes Late from the San Francisco Public Library in 1917. She never returned it, but 100 years later, her great-grandson showed up with it during an amnesty period. Based on rates at the time, she owed $2,300. Don't be too harsh on Ms. Webb. According to her great-grandson, she died before the book was due.


As amusing as that story is, here is the more important one. During that fine free period, which San Francisco Public held about once every eight years, 700,000 books were returned. That is a sign of the magnitude of the problem.


Several major and many more smaller library systems have totally removed late fees. Phoenix became the largest city to eliminate fines just a little over a month ago. They will bill patrons a book replacement fee after it goes over 50 days late, but will cancel the bill if the book is returned. San Diego removed fines after discovering they were paying more to collect overdue book fines than they were taking in. Columbus Ohio no longer collects fines and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library is now testing their elimination in a few branches.


Other libraries have taken in between steps. Some libraries have eliminated fines on books taken out by children. Others have holiday forgiveness programs. Another favorite around holiday time is forgiving fines if the patron brings in an item of canned food to give to the needy. Others now automatically extend the due date for an unreturned book if no one else has reserved it. Several libraries have received recommendations from consultants to remove the fees but have not yet acted.


Still, most libraries have not made the move. The largest public library system in America, New York Public, still collects fines. Then, there is the recent case from Charlotte, Michigan, where a woman was arrested for two overdue books and could have been sentenced to as much as 93 days in jail. Cooler heads prevailed, but she did have to pay the fine.


One thing that large library systems have repeatedly found when undertaking a study of the situation is that the percentage of overdue books, and loss of library privileges, is consistently higher in poorer neighborhoods. This is why the ALA and many libraries have concluded that late fees are discriminatory and erect barriers to those with the least in terms of financial means. For libraries, which struggle to keep their visitor numbers up in these days of e-books and competing forms of entertainment, this is the last thing they need. Money is keeping many potential patrons out just as libraries are fighting to stay relevant. No one wins in a lose-lose situation.


Some are concerned that the lack of fines will result in more books not being returned. However, libraries without fines have not experienced this, and the large number of overdue books returned during temporary amnesties backs up this experience. A temporary loss of library privileges until books are returned, along with assistance for people lacking the necessary fee if a book is lost, provides an alternative that enables people of limited means and their children to continue to have access to what may be their only source of books to read.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <center><b>Chiswick Auctions<br>Books & Works on Paper<br>Including Autographs & Memorabilia<br>31 March 2020</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Rackham (Arthur). The Old Hag Standing Outside a Cottage, original drawing, signed by the artist, [c.1909]. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Rowling (J.K.) <i>Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone,</i> FIRST EDITION, first printing, signed by the author, original pictorial wrappers, 1997. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Castiglione (Giuseppe, after). Twelve plates from <i>Twenty views of the European Palaces of the Yuanming yuan,</i> 1783-1786. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <center><b>Chiswick Auctions<br>Books & Works on Paper<br>Including Autographs & Memorabilia<br>31 March 2020</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Spanish Antiphonal.- Antiphonal manuscript, [Spain], ca. 1650. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Almanach de Gotha.- Almost complete run 1769 to 1945, 12mo & 8vo, Gotha, C.W. Ettinger [- Justus Perthes]. £4,000 to £6,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Bible, Greek.- New Testament [Greek], Novum Iesu Christi D.N. testamentum, ex bibliotheca regia, 2 parts in one, Robert Estienne, Paris, 1550. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <center><b>Chiswick Auctions<br>Books & Works on Paper<br>Including Autographs & Memorabilia<br>31 March 2020</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Lithgow (William). <i>The Total Discourse of the rare Adventures… from Scotland, to the most famous kingdoms in Europe, Asia, and Affrica…,</i> woodcut illustrations, 4to, I. Oakes, 1640. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Spanish Interest.-16th -18th Century. Large collection of letters related to prominent members of the Spanish court and clergymen,; v.s., late 16th-mid 18th century. £1,800 to £2,200.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Darwin (Charles). <i>The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,</i> 2 vol., FIRST EDITION, first issue8vo, John Murray, 1871. £1,500 to £2,000.
    <center><b>Chiswick Auctions<br>Books & Works on Paper<br>Including Autographs & Memorabilia<br>31 March 2020</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Loewy (Raymond) ARR. Mickey Mouse, original gouache and air brush illustration of Mickey Mouse, signed by artist., n.p. [1946]. £1,500 to £2,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Potter (Beatrix) & Sendak (Maurice). <i>The Tale of Peter Rabbit,</i> NUMBER 2 OF 250 SIGNED COPIES, WITH AN ORIGINAL DRAWING BY SENDAK, New York, 1995. £1,500 to £2,000.
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Mar. 31:</b> Wolstenholm (Jonathan) ARR. Books on Books, original watercolor, signed and dated by the artist, 2005.

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