Thursday, February 22, 2007

Cough it up or Library fines are good for you

See the wonders of the public library

The library wants you to use their services. We try very hard to get patrons' attention, to get them to read, to use our resources, after all, it is free (and good for you). You have free access to an education, to a new job, a better life, and free entertainment, all at your public library. However, there is a price to free, you have to share. Unfortunately, some people do not like to share or are otherwise inconsiderate. In order to encourage these users to share, libraries have fines. Libraries would prefer not to do this, as previously stated, we would prefer you to use our services and high fines block patrons from doing that. Furthermore, when surveys go out to non-library users (as we scratch our heads as to why they wouldn't use a FREE service) the top two reasons are they didn't know about us, or they had fines:

"Surveying non-users, Sarah Houghton-Jan points to a library who is trying to figure out who is NOT using their library. I did a little bit of this during National Library week. I set up a library card sign-up table outside of Wal-Mart and met a LOT of non-library users. The main reason people didn’t go back to the library? Fines, especially for younger patrons. "

Many patrons rack up fines, or realize their materials are so overdue that returning them would cost the same as keeping them. This can often happen when the patron is younger and the parents couldn't get the items back on time, so they never returned. Then, several years later, the child returns, very sheepish, assuming that we are going to smack their wrists with a ruler for having fines. Then they realize we have no record of their activity since its been five years. They happily get a new card and go about their way. Often, these people just don't make the effort to come back and that is a tragedy for that person.

Play nice, or it will cost you

Then there is the flip side of that. The fiduciary responsibilities libraries have to their taxpayers. A good post this week by the PVLD Director's blog, states about their struggle with fines.

"At this morning's meeting someone asked "Why don't we charge a fee for placing holds on items that are on the shelf rather than a fee for uncollected holds?" This is an interesting question as it really relates to customer service philosophy."

The director further discusses the differences between a fee and a fine. A library charging a fee for placing a hold is different than a library creating a fine for not picking one up. In the first case, the patron is paying for extra services, and in the other they are penalized for causing extra work. In my opinion, as far as fees go, there should never be an impediment or fee to access materials. A fee on holds creates a tiered system whereas a person with $2 will get the book faster, the others may not get it at all.

There is a line between creating fines to encourage users to bring back their items and punishing them for making mistakes. We all want patrons to use the library. If there were unlimited resources we could just say, "Keep all those books, we'll just get more." Of course with the tight budget of libraries, it just doesn't work that way.

However, whether we collect fines or fees, over time both become a fee to use our services. Even the best patrons will have fines from time to time and have a running total on their account. We can tweak the fines and fees system to encourage more use, but trying to find a balance is not easy.

Our Plan: The Tiered System

We found that we had user drop-off from fines. We had a threshold of $10 before we stopped allowing patrons to check-out. What ended up happening was that people would rack up $9.99 on their account, check out four videos, realize that they kept them too long, and with the fine they racked up then, they would never return. What that fine threshold becomes is the fee to use our services. In order to combat this, we decided to lower the threshold, but provided a little give.

After $5, patrons were restricted to only two items and now audiovisual materials. Not providing audiovisual means no movies (which carry a heft fine of $1 per day as opposed to $.10 for all other materials). The idea behind this was that patrons would be able to continue to use the services longer since they would more readily provide $5 over $10.

Even though it seems we were punishing them, we were not, we were trying to keep them in good graces longer so that they will continue to use the services. There is nothing like going to do some PR at a major event or at a Walmart (as Jessamyn did) with your bookmobile advertising the library's services with the reply, "Oh I think I have fines". They will also remember trying to get out of the fine to continue to use the library, but the library (dedicated to its fiduciary responsibility) said no way. So we shouldn't be surprised when they give us the same cold shoulder.

As a way to further help patrons remain in our good graces is to provide Food for Fines. Patrons can bring in one non-perishable item and we count it towards $1 on their fine (which is a great deal since you can buy Top Ramen 10 for $1. It seems like a rip-off toward the library, but the food banks love it. You can't always find a can opener, but you can always find water and a microwave somewhere.)

So did lowering the fine threshold work? Circulation went up during 2005 when we first implemented the system. From 2004-2006 here are the collection rates of the library:

2004, $64,000 in charges, $32,000 recovered (50%)
2005, $62,44 in charges, $58,000 recovered (92%) (woo!)
2006, $126,596 in charges, $46,000 recovered (25%) (What?)

What happened? It seemed like it was working right away. However, instead of people saying, "Great only $5 and I get full services back." they simply adjusted to the lower fine rate, but did the same procedure. In fact, we ended up fining people more and they paid less. Part of this was a result of an increase in DVD selection and circulation, resulting in higher fines because of the $1 per day late charge. So the theory didn't work. I think it has its benefits for the good library users, but the same users that had problems at $10, ended up having the same problem at $5. Worse, most of the time this threshold didn't matter since they racked up $25 from a lost book right off the bat, making the whole process negligible.

Going to Collections

After the dismal performance last year, we had no choice but to with a collection agency to recover our materials (they just ding your credit). I know we need to keep our users, but when they flagrantly keep our stuff, that goodwill ends. We never had a problem with theft (people walking out the door with our stuff), but we have always had a problem with people checking out our items and not returning them. In a way, it is the same problem.

So far, the collection agency has worked. We began the service last month. In January 2007, we had $12,000 in charges and $4,000 in payments, this month we have $$4800 in charges and $2800 in payments. So far, it seems to have knocked down people accruing fines, people are bringing back their books instead of keeping them, and people are paying what they owe. It is a drastic step to go with a collection agency, but if gone with the right company. It can be very effective.

We want patrons to use our library and we can do that by trying to help them keep their fines low. A tiered system works somewhat, but not well enough on its own. The collection agency puts the message into many patrons' heads that they need to respect and value the library if they want to continue to use it. The realization that they can get into trouble for not returning materials makes them more honest and keeps them using the library (plus it makes it so they can't get away :) I guess it is a form of tough love. By making patrons pay their fines we are keeping them using the library, and that is good for them, even though it doesn't seem so when they cough up the money.

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