Most things about working in a library are good. Book repairs are satisfying eventually, even shelf tidying is soothing in its own way. But the one thing I don’t particularly like dealing with is overdue fines or bills. This can take several forms, ranging from just having to tell people at the enquiry desk that the book they just brought back was a day late so they have a 10p fine (responses cover every possible reaction from completely nonplussed to utterly outraged), informing someone that the reason they can’t borrow any more books is not because their card is broken but because they owe more than the system limit, horrifying the person who had no idea the book they lost on holiday was worth THAT much, sending increasingly alarming template letters out appealing to please! at least just return the books! and getting no reply. I’ve heard about people too ashamed to return to the library because their book was overdue, people mortally embarrassed and apologetic because they owe a relatively tiny amount, and I’ve heard rants on how “corrupt the system is” and insinuations of boosting the office party budget with the library fine loot (office party? Dream on). This debt collecting aspect of the job was not the first thing I thought about when starting down the route to librarianship.
Indeed, the issue of fines in libraries is divisive. Whilst its been reported that library fines make up a significant part of some library’s budgets (University libraries in this example), the idea that they should be taken into account in this way can provoke deep opposition such as when Brighton and Hove City Council announced earlier this year that they would re-introduce fines for children as part of a plan to make up a budget shortfall.
There are a wide range of approaches to library fines across different library sectors and varying from library to library. For example, last year a public library in Alabama planned to enforce jail sentences on library members who hadn’t returned their books on time. Other libraries, like the University of Sheffield’s, have done away with library fines altogether. Some libraries have an “amnesty” at certain times where fines are waived as long as the book is returned.
Nevertheless, even if you work in a library that no longer charges fines, the chances are you still charge for lost or non-returned books, so it’s more than likely that dealing with fines or book replacement costs is something which you could encounter in your work life. One day you too may well have to be The Library Cop.
Training would be my first suggestion, if you’re offered it from your workplace take it. If you’re not, then try to educate yourself, for example see this preview on some “Violence in the workplace” caused by fines with some handy advice from the police (!) about how to deal with similar situations in your library, including “request backup” (I trust you all keep your walkie talkies with you at all times right?) Stay calm, and if you feel uncomfortable with the situation defer to a supervisor – unless you’re the supervisor in which case you either have to deal with it or perhaps allow some cooling off time by taking details and agreeing to follow up contact later. You’ll probably have to abide by your workplace rules in this matter, but if you do have any sort of discretion in these kinds of dealings you will probably find yourself weighing up the benefit of just getting the book back and not losing a library member over toeing the line.
Comment below (or go over to our forums) if you have any thoughts on the subject.