If you forgive the late fines, will they return the books?

First aired on Ontario Today (4/1/12)

Even the most responsible of us has, at some point or another, neglected to return a library book on time (yes, even you — admit it!). We all recognize the guilt-stricken shame we feel as our late fees climb higher and higher until, in the most extreme cases at least, we're so embarrassed by how long we've kept a book that we just avoid the library altogether. But what if you could return that severely overdue book without fear of reprisal?

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Admittedly, it sounds unlikely; in this era of shrinking library budgets, you certainly don't expect libraries to waive the income they get from late fees. Indeed, some libraries have been doing just the opposite, and sending loan collectors after their errant borrowers. In a recent news story out of Massachusetts, police officers frightened a five-year-old when they showed up at her house demanding her father's overdue audio book.

And yet libraries in certain parts of South Carolina and Wisconsin are experimenting with the elimination of late fines. And in Canada, the city of Windsor, Ontario, is doing the same.

Windsor's libraries held an amnesty in December, during which all late fines were forgiven. "There was an excellent response," Windsor Councillor Al Maghnieh told Ontario Today host Rita Celli earlier this week. "We had line-ups at our branches that we haven't seen since the early '90s."

During the amnesty, errant library patrons were encouraged to return any overdue items without guilt, shame or fiduciary punishment. More than 7,000 missing or late pieces of circulation were returned, and thousands of dollars worth of fines were waived from library users accounts. "A lot of people were really happy to clear their conscience," said Maghnieh. "It's like that nagging debt."

In some cases, what got returned was practically historic. "My favourite was this young fella back in 1984 — he's quite older now — [who] checked out one of the first VHS tapes on the life of John D. Rockefeller," he said. "The poor guy kept it since 1984, and lost it and moved, and finally recovered it. We put him in good standing."

Even for people whose outstanding fines are less than three decades old, fines can be intimidating. The guilt can cause people to avoid the library indefinitely — not exactly an ideal scenario for libraries or patrons. And often, as in the above case, in which an obsolete and almost worthless VHS tape could have cost someone almost $2,000, the fees are completely out of proportion. "It just doesn't make sense," Maghnieh commented. "We'd rather let go of that [money] and bring that person back to the library."

Maghnieh's primary concern, which he believes the abolition of late fees will help accomplish, is about bringing as many people into the library as possible. "Libraries are struggling across North America," said Maghnieh. "Their existence versus the digital age — it's getting difficult....As a way to bring more people into the library and progress literacy and learning, we thought, we don't [want to] punish our patrons for being a little late or taking their time with a novel."

What do you think? Do you have any overdue library books on your conscience? Would you support your municipality employing this policy? Let us know in the comments, and fill out the survey below.