10 Sep 2021

Libraries step back from crime and punishment

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 10 September 2021
Auckland library books

From September 1 fines are forgiven.  Photo: Alexia Russell

We’ve all been there.

You’re doing a spot of tidying. Maybe a spring clean, maybe you’re moving house. You’re excavating some ancient box with a thick layer of dust.

Then you spot them, out of the corner of an eye.

Books. Lots of books. With barcodes.

Your stomach knots up. You think, frantically – are these mine? Did I buy them from a second-hand store, a library clearance?

You take a look inside. Nope, you borrowed them all right. Five months ago.

Your memory clicks into gear as you flick through that classic tome Geopolitics, History and International Relations, Volume 4.

You made it to page three, as you recall, then you were distracted by, oh, something more interesting – dinner, or the paint drying in the living room.

The books, all 13 of them, went into the box, along with the wig from that David Bowie costume party and the Richard Simmons workout VHS tape you bought in the mid-90s. Long-since forgotten.

But you know who didn’t forget?

The library.

You do the maths. Thirteen books, one dollar a day, three months late. 

Your mind goes to strange, paranoid places: am I a criminal? Will they stop me at the border if I try to leave the country? Is Auckland City Libraries going to send Rocky Balboa after me?

Everybody has their story.

But fear no more – not if you’re in Auckland, at least.

Taking the plunge

Last year Auckland Council Libraries issued over 13.5 million items and welcomed over 8.5 million visitors across its 56 library centres.

This year it decided to entirely abolish late fees. The move came into effect on September 1.

It also wrote off all outstanding debts: more than $500,000, the largest of which was an impressive $319.90 – though that pales in comparison to those technically owed by the estate of US President George Washington.

The concept behind library fines is pretty obvious: return the items you borrowed on time, or you start paying.

But Louise LaHatte, the head of heritage at Auckland City Libraries, says this can scare people away.

Auckland Library head of research and heritage Louise LaHatte.

Louise LaHatte Photo: Supplied / Auckland Council

“We did a lot of research about libraries overseas and in New Zealand who’ve already removed fines.

“Evidence shows people are just as likely – and in many cases, more likely – to return books when they don’t have a fine scenario in place.

“Fines create a narrative where, when someone bring up the library, the first thing people think of is fines.

“Seinfeld did a whole show about library cops.

“So what we’re trying to promote with libraries is that they’re a place where everybody is welcome, and everyone should have access to what libraries can offer. And fines really act as a barrier for people who can’t afford to pay them.

“It might seem nothing, or the price of a cup of coffee for some people, but if you’re a family who have to look at every single dollar, you just can’t afford it.

“We’ve had families who don’t let their children take books out because they can’t afford fines. We’ve had people who, as soon as they get a fine they never come back to the library.”

A global trend

Library amnesties have been a thing for a long time – days, or weeks, when libraries have thrown open their returns box, no questions asked, no judgment passed.

In 2012, the Chicago Public Library held an amnesty – the Windy City’s first in more than 20 years – which saw more than 100,000 overdue items return home, collectively valued at more than $2 million.

Another amnesty in 2016 was similarly successful, and in 2019, the library decided to bite the bullet and phase out overdue fines altogether.

Chicago wasn’t the first library to go fees-free – in fact, several libraries in New Zealand have also phased them out, including Upper Hutt, Selwyn, and Masterton. 

In Greymouth, fines are replaced by a different kind of forfeit during summer: reading away your debt.

But the practice has spread over the past couple of years: in early 2019 in Ireland, all overdue fines in all public libraries were abolished, with the aim of doubling library membership by 2024.

It’s a stark contrast from the way the winds seemed to be blowing not so long ago, LaHatte says.

“When people had large fines we used to refer the debt to BayCorp (a debt collection agency).

“That made it even more frightening, and likely that people had lost that trust relationship with the library and wouldn’t come back to us.”

Forgoing funds

In forgiving the debt, Auckland City Libraries is forgoing more than half a million dollars – which isn’t small change for a library.

Overdue fines are also a relatively reliable stream of income: in the financial year to June 2021, all libraries in Auckland collected a total of more than $700,000 in fines – though the amount has been on a consistent downward trend from 2012 to 2019, partly due to the rise in e-borrowing, which doesn’t incur fines. At any one time less than 10 percent of items are overdue - and dealing with the fines equals a lot of administrative time. 

LaHatte says the change has been built into the council’s long-term plan, and none of the libraries’ services will suffer as a consequence.

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Photo: Unsplash / Jessica Ruscello

“We will still send courtesy reminder notices before an item is due, and after it’s due as well,” LaHatte says.

“Twenty-four days after the due date of the item we say, ‘ok, we think maybe you’ve lost it’ and send people a notice saying they’ve been charged a replacement.

“Once that charge is on the card they can’t borrow any more – but if they return the book, all that gets wiped off and they can borrow again.”

Which makes sense – because books cost money, and libraries can’t afford to just give them away.

“We do this because we can look at our own evidence and see that we have a lot of lapsed users. People who haven’t used us at all for a year or more.

“We can also see where they live in Auckland, and it is, as you might expect, more likely to happen in south Auckland and west Auckland.

“We want to make sure that we’re reaching Aucklanders, and we have particular value to people who don’t have work and are job-seeking, who don’t have access to other reading or information, and often those are the people that we’re losing, because they see that the library is a place where they’re going to owe us money if they start using us.”

Whether or not other libraries around the country will follow the lead of the libraries who’ve made this call is still up in the air.

But your faithful, forgetful correspondent certainly hopes they do, so he can finally return (REDACTED) to the (REDACTED) library shelves for the first time since George W Bush was president.

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