Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton (N.J.) Public Library and president-elect of the American Library Association, defends fines. "People understand that it's part of the way our institutions do business," she says. "It recognizes that when somebody takes an item out from the library, they're entering into a contract to take it out for a certain period of time. When they decide to keep it out longer than that, they pay a fee."
Ms. Burger dislikes the word fines, preferring late fee. "Fines indicate that you're being punished. It's hardly equivalent to speeding. Late fee implies a different attitude. It doesn't say to people, 'You're bad, you kept your book out too long.' "
Yet she acknowledges the need to tailor library policies to fit certain needs. "We need to be more flexible because not everybody has the means to pay. In some communities, fees work as a barrier and keep people away." The Public Library Association and the Association of Library Services to Children are asking libraries to reconsider card policies that keep low-income teens away for fear of fines.
Even when money isn't a problem, there can be other obstacles. "People don't carry much cash anymore, and they don't carry checks much," Burger says. "We noticed that they weren't able to clear late fees off their account. When we started taking credit cards, people were more than willing to clear their account."
When accounts aren't cleared, some libraries turn to collection agencies. One firm, Unique Management Services in Jeffersonville, Ind., works with nearly 800 public libraries in North America.
"Most of the time we're talking to people who are busy and just haven't made it a priority to take those materials back," says Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development. "We hear things like, 'Well, it's a free library, isn't it?' Often people don't understand that library materials have to be purchased, and typically purchased with tax dollars. In the current economic environment of reduced tax revenues," he says, "stopping those losses really gets to be critical."