Universities collected £50m in library fines, figures show (Guardian)

An FOI request from the Press Association has resulted in Universities revealing how much money they make from fining students for overdue books. The article itself is a fairly typical stats fest with no real argument to make, but there’s some interesting points in there that are worth exploring.

First of all, £50m is obviously quite an impressive figure, but virtually every librarian would tell you that it’s income we’d quite happily live without, as we’d prefer it if the books just came back on time!

Dealing with overdue books takes up a surprising amount of time. Yes, the LMS (Library Management System)  is set up to deal with them automatically, but that all has to be set up and constantly monitored as opening hours change and bank holidays move every year. Different collections and patron types might have different loan / fine criteria which have to be programmed and monitored also. We’re probably not the only institution that sends out overdue reminders by email; that’s another system that has to be watched as my God, doesn’t everyone throw a fit if they don’t get their reminders.* When fines are paid, the money has to be banked and that’s two and a half hours of my life every week that I’m not getting back.** And what happens if students still don’t return their books? Some sort of invoicing procedure has to be put in place and as I’m currently implementing a new one for my library, please believe me when I tell you this takes up a lot of time. As does producing the invoice requests, pricing up the books, sending them to Finance to be raised…***

Then, inevitably, there’s the sheer amount of staff time spent arguing with students about their overdue books. “But Miss, I live like, well far away and I couldn’t get here in time!” (this usually means they live the next town over.) “The books are really heavy!” (you managed to take them out though, didn’t you?) “You didn’t send me a reminder” (sorry about that, but these things happen and you still had the book! It’s your responsibility to stay on top of these things!) “I couldn’t come in because of the rain Miss!” (yes, I really have heard this one. Needless to say it wasn’t the Flood, and staff made it in from further away.) I spend at least 10 hours of my working week acting as Library Supervisor, which basically means Duty Manager, therefore I’m the person that has to deal with stroppy students at the desk, so I’m the person who has to listen to the whinging, the crying and often, the shouting. So I would much, much rather that students just returned their books on time and never paid a single library fine.

But we have to accept the fact that no, students are not going to return their books on time. It’s simply not their highest priority, much as we would like it to be. And if they have a deadline approaching and the book is key to their argument (or, in most cases, they hope the book is key but they haven’t actually got round to reading it yet) then they’re definitely not going to return it. We try to make it as easy as possible for students to renew their books and I’m sure most other libraries do the same, but there will still always be students who don’t bother. There therefore has to be a penalty, in order to make the system fair for all those students who do manage their due dates properly.

This penalty can take a form other than fines; the article mentions the University of Westminster which doesn’t charge fines, but instead blocks students from using their library accounts for the same amount of time as their books were overdue. This sounds like an interesting model, but I worry that it wouldn’t be much of a disincentive to students who know they don’t have any more coursework to hand in for a while, so they can afford to keep their books out and have their accounts blocked for a while afterwards as they won’t be studying then anyway.**** Most libraries choose to charge fines, the scale of which varies. I was very interested to read that Imperial College London collected the lowest amount of fines over the years surveyed, which is most likely related to the fact also revealed in the article, that they block students accounts when they have £4 of fines. We do something similar, but with a much higher level of £15. In practise, this means that the majority of students using our library currently have fines of around £14.95, as they will pay off just enough to get their accounts unblocked rather than the whole amount. This is definitely something I’ll be adding to the agenda for our end of year review as although the student body will no doubt believe a lower limit to be unfair, it would probably be fairer to them in the long run as it would be much easier to pay off and help keep their fines down.

Finally, I have two criticisms of the article itself. The first is that it does not appear to make the distinction between fines for overdue material and replacement costs and charges for lost material. This is evident where the author talks about fines charged by Edinburgh Napier University, which includes a quote about replacement costs. I would therefore be suspicious of the accuracy of the figures quoted as if in some instances they include charges for lost material, that will skew the conclusions entirely.

And secondly, nowhere in the article does the author explain where the funds raised by fining for overdue books actually go. I hope it was part of the original FOI and just hasn’t made it into the article, as otherwise it would be very poor research. Rest assured, any impoverished student reading this, your fines go to noble causes. In the case of my institution, all fines income is funnelled into the book fund and any payment for lost items is used to either replace the lost item, or goes back into the general book fund also. I believe the same is true of many other institutions; ask, they should be able to tell you. We are not punishing you for your loans going overdue then using your fines to pay for the tea fund, our own wages or even our regular jaunts to the local pub. Any funds raised are used to further improve the collection for your benefit.

But still, why not just bring your books back on time, eh? Or renew them? We’d all be everso grateful!

(I’m planning a future post on alternatives to fines, if you have any bright ideas please leave them in the comments so I can steal them we can all discuss them!)

*Our “courtesy emails” are currently being run by one PC in the systems office. When the person who uses that PC goes on annual leave, the PC sometimes crashes and it might not be noticed for a day or two. I wish students (and staff, for that matter) could understand that we don’t have some sort of NASA style system; if the PC crashes the email won’t send, and PCs crash a lot.

**okay, I’m exaggerating, the banking would probably still take that long anyway as our cash also comes from printing and photocopying credit, stationary sales and equipment fines from Faculty’s that don’t have tills. Cash from fine payments is actually one of the smallest totals. But it still takes time, dammit!

***inevitably, students normally manage to return their extremely overdue books at the exact point at which we’ve done all the work pricing up their books and sending the invoice request to finance, but the invoice hasn’t actually been raised yet. This is vexing.

****unless this includes their IT accounts as well, that would definitely make them pay up. If we had the power to suspend IT accounts we’d have them eating out of our hands!