Last October the Cambridge Public Library joined a trend among libraries nation-wide. They abolished overdue fees on materials past due.
I always knew the point of charging ten cents per day per overdue book (a dollar for a CD!) was not to generate real income for the library. It thought it was a mild incentive to be a good library user; to return items borrowed on time. Therefore, I couldn’t understand the point of eliminating them.
After the policy was in force a few months, I asked my local librarian about the fallout of eliminating overdue fines. Her response revealed a completely different logic than the one trapped within me.
“It has been a huge success. We’ve received hundreds of items that people did not bring back because their fines were so high. Books and CD’s that people had held on to for years.”
This provided one of those moments when I stand in awe at the spectrum of human behavior, while simultaneously acknowledging that I occupy a lonely niche more than two standard deviations beyond the norm. What was for me: incentive; was to others: punishment. Ten cents per day is not a lot of money for the guy who gets his books in within the basic timeframe of ‘due date.’ But for the person harboring library materials for years, it adds up to serious money. And though criminal it may be to withhold library books, no one lies in fear that the sheriff will come a-knockin’ in search of that long missing copy of Pride and Prejudice.
The trend continues: New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, Boston Public Library, even the library in beautiful downtown Burbank. And so far, the results are exactly what libraries were seeking: people are returning long, long overdue books.
Nowadays, when I push to finish a book in time to get it back to the library, a voice in my head says, “It doesn’t matter. There are no fines.” I am nothing if not disciplined, and so far, the lack of fines has not loosened my punctuality habit. I override the louche voice by internally proclaiming the fundamental library contract–knowledge for all; shared among all—and get materials back so they can used by another patron. But that logic is not nearly as compelling as the vision of dimes spilling out of my pocket which has haunted me since I was seven, and dimes were real money. I’m pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before I fall off my high horse and return something: overdue.