The power of competition, or should there by library fines?

by on August 18, 2008 at 3:38 am in Books | Permalink

From the UK:

"Libraries are facing competition from television, magazines, the
internet, e-books, yet they have this archaic and mad idea of charging
people money for being slightly late," said library consultant Frances
Hendrix – a loud voice in the debate which has been taking place on an
online forum for librarians. "It’s all so negative, unprofessional and
unbusinesslike; like any business, libraries need not to alienate their
customers." Liz Dubber, director of programmes at reading charity The
Reading Agency, agreed. "My personal view [is that] they’re past their
sell-by date because they do sustain a very old-fashioned image of
libraries which is out of sync with today’s modern library environment
and the image libraries are trying to project – tolerant, responsive,
flexible, stimulating," she said.

Some critics have described the fines as "alienating."  But are there alternatives?:

One librarian suggested adopting the ancient practice of some
monasteries, in which monks who offended in the handling of books were
publicly cursed. Another pointed to Soviet Russia, where they said that
offenders’ names were published in newspapers to shame them into
returning their books. In New Zealand town Palmerston North next week,
library users returning late books are being challenged to beat
librarians on Guitar Hero to have their fines waived.

In any case this economist will suggest higher fines for very new and popular books and also commonly used reference manuals, combined with lower fines for everything else.

1 dearieme August 18, 2008 at 5:44 am

In Britain, words such as “tolerant, responsive, flexible, stimulating” tend to be uttered by Stalinist bullies.

2 hyokon August 18, 2008 at 6:29 am

The libraries have the right to set their strategy themselves, even if some people call it stupid. They have the right to be stupid.

When you don’t like a price, you don’t buy it. If you want to negotiate, you may say “If the price were lower, I would buy it.” But you cannot (and should never try to) force the seller to lower the price. Trying to force someone’s individual decision is a violence.

3 Mike Huben August 18, 2008 at 7:04 am

“A practice common in business is insufferable by government. Pay for government services? Insufferable!”
(From Libertarianism in One Lesson; The Second Lesson, at http://world.std.com/~mhuben/twolesson.html)

It’s very hard to find a financial service without late fees. Credit cards and mortgages for example. Or try bringing back a rental car or video a few minutes late without being charged for another entire day. So libertarians whine about a few cents late fees at public libraries, but will not criticize entire industries whose most profitable practices are late fees.

4 David Rothman August 18, 2008 at 7:14 am

I’ve been advocating the idea of Permanent Checkouts for at least some e-books (with quotas so libraries don’t become bookstores in disguise). See some recent thoughts at:

http://www.teleread.org/blog/2008/04/26/library-books-you-can-keep-forever-and-other-ideas-to-help-public-libraries-survive-the-digital-era/

Fines are no small detail for low-income families worried about the costs. The Permanent Checkout concept would be one way to encourage use of libraries by those who normally shied away from them.

David Rothman
TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home
http://www.teleread.org/blog

5 Andromeda August 18, 2008 at 7:48 am

I sense Palmerston North having a wave of intentionally late books, at least until their librarians become legendarily good through long practice.

Me, I have recently fallen in love with my public library, which must be loads better than Slocum’s — I can walk to the local branch, it’s part of an extensive library consortium meaning that the books I have access to through it are extremely diverse if I’m willing to wait a few days, I can request anything in the system online, I can get access to some databases from home, I can even check out free passes for local museums and the like. Now if only the online request system ran more like Netflix…

6 nicole August 18, 2008 at 8:52 am

Dan Tarrant,
The fact that you continue to live in a place that does indicates that it’s worth it to you.

That only indicates living in his town is worth a premium of $250/year over living elsewhere—perhaps because of other amenities, perhaps because of commute times, perhaps for emotional reasons. But not because the library itself is worth anything to him at all.

7 jurisnaturalist August 18, 2008 at 9:09 am

Prince William County Libraries in Virginia have a “Fortunate Find” category for new and popular titles. The rules require a shorter borrowing period, and higher fines, and no right to renew.
For all other books, renewal is easy and virtually unlimited. When a book is requested by another borrower, renewals are no longer allowed.
The only way anyone could end up with significant fines is by being stupid or lazy.

8 Buzzcut August 18, 2008 at 9:38 am

When I was a lad in the ’70s, the fine at my library was a nickel a day. At my library today, the cost of the fine is… a nickel a day. The head librarian is a friend of mine, and she says that she thinks that people would go nuts if she raised the fine. I’d actually like my library to go to the Netflix model. I’d pay a certain amount per month, they’d mail me my book of choice, I’d mail it back when I am done. No late fees.

9 Dan Tarrant August 18, 2008 at 9:47 am

nicole writes:

“That only indicates living in his town is worth a premium of $250/year over living elsewhere—perhaps because of other amenities, perhaps because of commute times, perhaps for emotional reasons. But not because the library itself is worth anything to him at all.”

Living in a civilization is kind of a package deal; you can’t decide what particular public amenities you want your tax dollars to fund any more than the way you can’t eat at a restaurant and ask them to deduct a few cents off your tab because you don’t like the expensive wall decor.

And just because you don’t use the public library doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute to the quality of the community as a whole, which is really what you’re paying for when you pay a community’s taxes.

10 ZBicyclist August 18, 2008 at 9:55 am

“Libraries face competition” — and they think a major factor here is late fees?

This is hard to believe, given the high education level of librarians.

11 Jacqueline August 18, 2008 at 11:11 am

With my forgetfulness, to me libraries are effectively book rental services with a three week free trial period for each book. 🙂

12 champthom August 18, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Personally, I liked the strategy my old college library used. If the book was requested by another patron, then it was a dollar a day, otherwise you essentially had a 28 day grace period, which after that time you were charged $10 plus the replacement fee for the book (though if you returned the book it’d just be the $10 fine). Popular books, videos, etc. had a 25 cent fine.

Apparently, the $10 after 28 days was done since too much time was being spent collecting minuscule fines from patrons.

13 Bill Harshaw August 18, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Fairfax has varying checkout periods depending on the newness/popularity of the books, 3 renewals permitted unless someone else wants it, but still assesses late fees.

I like the policy. If I could keep books until requested by another reader, they might well get lost among my own books. And even though I make use of the website to get into the waiting list for new books (like Tyler’s), I do browse the shelves and take out books I see. If the book is in someone’s home, I am less likely to become aware of it.

14 Ak Mike August 18, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Dan Tarrant – Living in civilization is a package deal. So please do not complain about the troops in Iraq, offshore drilling leases, the new four lane highway right next to your house, or anything else the government chooses to fund. After all, you cannot decide what particular amenities your tax money gets spent on.

15 Adam August 18, 2008 at 7:09 pm

I can’t help but wonder how much
a) you paid for the computer you’re using to read or order these free/cheap books. If it is even marginally as portable as a book, it has to be at least a couple of hundred dollars.
b) wi-fi may be accesible in cute little neighborhoods decorated with coffee shops and shiny new hybrids, but you can certainly imagine a community where wi-fi isn’t being pumped into the air like carbon monoxide.

c) credit cards. To some extent, with the exception of pre paids, getting a credit card or using a credit card can be a big problem for a myriad of different people, who debatably would gain as much from cheap accesible reading material as you seem to be so attached to.

In short, the people most in need of libraries are probably people that are most culturally removed from the intake of non-tv media. A spectacular way to maintain efficient paths out of poverty of mind and culture is to provide rich and diverse means of accesible education. As said above, if you think an educated populous is unimportant, then obviously your bubble of a world hasn’t popped yet. Just because libraries are out dated for someone like you doesn’t mean that the library is outdated for someone in Flint or Battle Creek or Detroit, especially making less than 12000/yr. When the government takes that S250 a year and mails out computers and wi-fi is broadcast city wide, then I think would be a more prudent time to talk about ‘outdated’ libraries.

16 ...tom... August 18, 2008 at 8:07 pm


Libraries are essentially ‘welfare book stores’. For those who can not afford to buy and sell their own books.

Public libraries should be user-supported; financed through memberships, subscriptions, rental fees, donations, volunteer work, and/or any combination of those and other fund-raising activities.

Those who use the service should support the service. Those who can not ‘afford’ to contribute financially could support the effort through volunteer efforts.

All in my humble opinion of course.

…tom…
.

17 Slocum August 19, 2008 at 6:34 am

I can’t help but wonder how much
a) you paid for the computer you’re using to read or order these free/cheap books. If it is even marginally as portable as a book, it has to be at least a couple of hundred dollars.

Functional, internet capable computers are discarded in huge numbers (you should have seen the stretch-wrapped pallets and dumpsters and the computer-recycling event here last year). Adequate used computers can be had for virtually nothing. The computer I’m typing this on is about five years old. If I wanted to replace it now, I’d have to recycle it or give it away. It still works fine for what I do (which is why I haven’t replaced it), but I couldn’t sell it — it has no cash value.

b) wi-fi may be accesible in cute little neighborhoods decorated with coffee shops and shiny new hybrids, but you can certainly imagine a community where wi-fi isn’t being pumped into the air like carbon monoxide.

You don’t need wi-fi or broadband of any kind to order books over the internet — $10/month dial-up will do the job. You’re not going to be watching youtube that way, but it’ll work just fine for book searches and purchases.

But that said, if we’re going to subsidize information access for poor people, we’d do far better to subsidize net access than fund public library systems. One is now far more information-impoverished without an internet connection than without a local public library.

c) credit cards. To some extent, with the exception of pre paids, getting a credit card or using a credit card can be a big problem for a myriad of different people…

A debit card will work as well as a credit card. Are there people poor, uneducated people with disorganized lives who have no bank accounts or debit cards and wouldn’t know what to do with a free computer if they had one? Sadly, yes. But virtually none of these folks are regular public library users. I do know poor working class people (and am related to some of them). But every one I know has enough money and wherewithal to own TVs, DVD players and pay for cable TV service every month. They tend to have very few books in the house, but certainly not because they can’t afford them.

…who debatably would gain as much from cheap accesible reading material as you seem to be so attached to. In short, the people most in need of libraries are probably people that are most culturally removed from the intake of non-tv media.

They may *need* them, but they don’t use them because, by and large, they don’t use many books.

But fine — let’s consider what we would do about books for poor people in the absence of public libraries. Why wouldn’t we approach that the same way we approach clothing, toys, and home furnishings for poor people — namely community charitable organizations and resale shops?

18 Dan Tarrant August 19, 2008 at 8:44 am

AK Mike writes:

Dan Tarrant – Living in civilization is a package deal. So please do not complain about the troops in Iraq, offshore drilling leases, the new four lane highway right next to your house, or anything else the government chooses to fund. After all, you cannot decide what particular amenities your tax money gets spent on.

Well, you’re certainly free to complain about public amenities, just like you’re free to complain that your favorite restaurant spends too much $ on its decor.

But ultimately the choice is yours as to whether you want to purchase the goods and services of a particular eatery as well as a particular society.

My point is that libertarians like to act as though they have no choice but to pay taxes. But it’s not true – nobody’s forcing you to live in the community that you choose to live in.

19 Slocum August 19, 2008 at 10:20 am

Books are different from those items in the sense that usually once you’ve read one you don’t need it anymore.

I don’t feel that way about books. One of the reason I really like electronic books is that I can keep them without them taking up any space.

So it makes more sense to allow books to be borrowed instead of sold. But there’s no money to be made in allowing people to borrow things so no private businessman would take it up.

Really? How do you account for video rental stores, Netflix and pay-per-view then?

I don’t know about that (many public housing projects are hardly thriving), but I’m simply saying that the popularity of libraries is due to the fact that it is a case where the government is able to provide a service more efficently than the private sector.

Nonsense. *So* much of the local public library budget is spent on overhead rather than books. It’s spent on bricks-and-mortar (the library management here just *loves* to plan new fancy, state-of-the-art, spare no expense, architecturally award-winning branches and expansions, hire planners and architects, float bonds & etc), and another large hunk of the budget is spent on labor, including expensive professional librarians whose services are, in the age of Google, really not needed. I don’t need help finding things. And I SURE as hell don’t need some professional gatekeeper deciding what books to buy and keep on the shelves when the right answer is — don’t bother, just stay out of the way, because they’re ALL on the virtual shelves.

Do you *really* think your public library delivers books to you more cost-effectively (when you divide the annual budget + opportunity cost of the inventory and real estate by the number of items loaned) than Blockbuster or Netflix? Without even knowing the numbers, I know there’s no chance in hell that’s true (and so do you, if you think about it a minute).

20 Slocum August 19, 2008 at 11:54 am

Slocum, I think you’re hitting on the classic public/private issue. Because you’ve got money and knowledge, you probably are able to get books in a more efficent manner than what libraries can provide.

I don’t buy it. You certainly don’t have to be sophisticated to rent videos from Blockbuster and only a bit more to buy used books from Amazon.

(Of course, I’m guessing that I’m getting more reading material for the dollar than you are since I probably read several hundred dollars worth of books for a minisculre amount of tax paid.)

Even putting a very low value on my time (say 2x minimum wage) and not including the cost of driving and parking, the money saved by having books delivered to my door (as opposed to driving to the library to check out and return them) more than pays for all the used books I buy. I could toss them in the trash when finished and still come out ahead.

But not everybody (dare I say most of the general public) has the resources and knowledge to purchase electronic books. So are they just supposed to do without? I guess the libertarian says “yes” but fortunately our society sees the value in supporting the ability for anybody to have access to books.

Well, you might dare say it, but you’d be wrong. Most of the general public has access to a computer and the internet, and that’s all that’s needed for electronic books. And for anything in the public domain, you don’t need to purchase anything — they’re free. But at this point, eBooks are a small segment. Don’t think eBooks, think used books over the net.

And no, libertarians don’t say — “Screw you, do without”. Instead, they ask, “Is this out-dated, expensive, inefficient government-run system *really* the best way to provide the desired benefit to the public?” In the case of books and libraries, I’d argue that the answer is currently “no”, and as the years go by it’s going to become more obviously “NO!”.

But, even so, I expect public libraries to hang around quite a long time for sentimental reasons. Public libraries are one of those baseball and apple pie goods — a lot of people like the idea of public libraries even if they rarely or never use them.

21 Slocum August 19, 2008 at 3:09 pm

Yeah, imagine that: people supporting things that they don’t necessarily benefit from themselves. Makes one’s head spin.

By your own accounting, you derive far more benefits from your public library system than you pay in taxes — any yet you make snarky suggestions of selfishness….nice.

Look, supporting things that don’t benefit me directly is one thing, and that’s fine — I don’t want to live a world of gated communities where all amenities are private (even if I could afford the private amenities myself). But I *do* want public amenities to be efficient and sensible. So supporting things that don’t benefit me directly and are highly inefficient in delivering the benefits to those who do use them is something I’m not a big fan of.

22 Anonymous August 23, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Apparently in Madrid they prohibit you from borrowing books for the same amount of time that your book is overdue.

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