Saturday, June 26, 2010

a fine dilemma

In Chapter 5 of his book, Cognitive Surplus, about the sharing of information online, Clay Shirky talks about human motivation in general, and, at one point, moves into a discussion of an issue of interest to librarians -- fines. A fine, by its monetary nature, changes a transaction or situation from one of purely social and emotional motivations to a commercial one. If policy is changed, and a fine for noncompliance is imposed in a situation that had previous been operated on the basis of honor, the fine will be seen as "payment." Misbehavior now has a price, and curiously, gains some legitimacy because of it. Furthermore, that attitude of a paid transaction remains even if the fine policy is revoked. He also recalls an encounter with an airline agent in which he referred to the extra money to be paid for changing the date of a ticket as a charge, while she firmly called it a "penalty," thus insisting that it was a punishment, not merely a shame-free payment.

All of this gives some insight into why so many people carry large and/or persistent fines on their library card. (The fact that some refer to checking out videos, and sometimes even books, as "renting" gives another clue to the same phenomenon.) At five or ten or twenty-five cents a day the price for keeping an item beyond the due date is an incredible bargain. The social contract of giving the next person a turn may never enter their minds at all.

Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions for a library, which is, by nature and mission -- and rightly so -- a "good guy." As the book points out, getting rid of fines won't turn people into selfless angels. After generations of issuing fines, the concept of a commercial relationship in people's minds would not disappear. Making fines high enough to be a significant deterrent would not necessarily deter those who could comfortably pay, but would be a serious burden on poorer people, the very ones who need public libraries most. So what about making it clear that a fine is a penalty, not a shame-free payment for rental or the extra convenience of extended time? The problem with that is that too harsh of a judgement makes people feel bad. And libraries are about empowering the disempowered, which often means being kind and unjudgmental toward people who are judged unkindly in almost every other public transaction. Some people desperately need to be cut some slack by the one institution that's compassionate enough to cut them any at all. But other people have an inflated sense of entitlement, or enjoy seeing how much they can get away with, and some only respond to strict rules. And many people just float through life with a blind self-centeredness, not even aware of the needs of others. Somehow, the needs of all patrons (and of the library itself) have to be met with the same rules, impartially applied.

And no, I don't have any ideas.

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