Fines recovery


All library authorities have, theoretically, thousands of pounds owing to them from users due to late fees, lost items or even stolen books.  The scale of these losses  vary:

It’s interesting to note that the USA has similar problems with Austin Texas having recorded $1.1 million in unreturned property and a further $864k in unpaid fines. Please note that the wide variety of charges probably indicates differing practices – some councils wipe (effectively waiving) records of lost items after x number of years, others use y number of years, others don’t delete fines, ever.  For a long list of links to articles on this subject, including much debate in the profession, see the comments of Libraryweb at the end of this post.


(a) Getting all this money back (see “chase up tax avoiders” above) would make a significant impact.  This is taken very seriously in the USA. An American library service uses a collection service that generates $9k per month.  Kent have decided to employ an American debt recovery firm to try to recover £100k. Essex has done the same  [although there are still technical difficulties in implementing this, as of June 2013 – Ed.] as has Redbridge.

 (b) it encourages others to return items on times and thus improve available stock.  It even (c) encourages people to come back to use the library as the fees charges are rarely as high as people fear (although, often, those with non-returned books worry so much about late items they keep them for years, or bin them, rather than owning up to the feared scary librarian who, in reality, would be just happy to see the item back). Finally, (d) breaking the law by stealing books is an offence and offenders should be punished.


(i) It could cost a fortune to fully recover fines/items because

(ii) amounts owed to libraries tend to be quite small and very numerous.  The cost of recovering items can be similar or exceeding that of the value of items returned.  Taking legal action against a member of the public for return of items is

(iii) rife with danger as it could be seen as a waste of resources being the cost of legal action would almost certainly be more than the value of the items concerned (see this article about Bromley sending a letter asking for some books back from an eight-year old – this article was then taken up by the Telegraph the next day).

(iv) Being too stringent on chasing late items would also deter genuine users from the library service.

(v) British library services see owed fines as a standard part of the service, impossible to eradicate, that they will likely largely recover over the fullness of time.

(vi) one could fall foul of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act if one uses fines as a way to make money for the service rather simply as an incentive for returning material on time.

(vi) fines go against the welcoming image that libraries should be adopting.

Alternatively, a fines amnesty may be an effective (if counter-intuitive) way of saving money by getting items back that would otherwise stay lost forever. However, removing charges completely is widely assumed to be impractical, as backed up by a recent failed Canadian experiment. Angus (December 2015) have recently removed late fees, claiming they make more money back in returned books than they would in fines.

See On library fines : Ensuring civic responsibility or an easy income stream? – David Mcmenemy and For and against library fines – Guardian.

See also USA – Why The Poorest Children Can’t Access Free Books – Attn. A look at the reason for fining children and reasons for and against (May 2017).

USA – Libraries Are Dropping Overdue Fines — But Can They Afford To? – Huffington Post. “… libraries did not institute fines in order to shame, punish or make money off of patrons, Todaro emphasized. Rather, a fine is “supposed to maximize use of the material” by providing a small but sharp reminder to return what we’ve borrowed. “People want those books,” she told HuffPost, “and there’s not enough.” What’s more, she explained, replacing a lost or stolen book eats up more library resources than delinquent borrowers may realize ― not just in the price of the new book, but in costly human labor to acquire and process it. Fines provide a classic economic motivation for cardholders to avoid those negative externalities.” (May 2017)

“Slate’s Ruth Graham looked at the aftermath of a Colorado library district’s elimination of overdue fines in 2015 and found that the financial loss was manageable and the boost to morale ― for both patrons and librarians ― was striking. Perhaps most notable: “95 percent of materials are returned within a week of their due date.” Such a simple move might seem too good to be true, but perhaps sometimes the simplest solution really is also the best for all concerned.”

No More Mr Nice Library?

Lincolnshire: No More Mr Nice Library?

“… as of the 1st April, GLL will be using a debt recovery company for any borrowers with accounts above £20. I’m absolutely disgusted by this. As a library volunteer, I’ve just been emailed a copy of the poster that will be displayed, receipts we have to hand out, plus instructions for dealing with the cash which is to be held separately. I’m seriously not happy about being involved in such a thing … to be honest it has me seriously considering quitting.

Basically, that libraries can be a lifeline for vulnerable people, and the library service is threatening people with debt companies for debts they may have no way of paying. Debts as small as £20, which is ridiculously low to be taking enforcement action. That if someone dies their families may end up with debt letters before they even find that they had library books out. That people won’t be able to use the library till debts are paid, which if it includes internet, can cut off the poorest from online jobsearching, universal credit accounts, family contact… The thought of elderly clients who have forgotten they had a book or who have been in hospital ending up with a scary looking debt company letter… Even if the fines can be overturned if not justified, you can’t take back the kind of hurt you inflict on people who are fairly likely to be vulnerable.” Lincolnshire Volunteer on new GLL debt recovery scheme (via email).

 “We want to increase the number of people engaging with our service by removing all barriers and fines can be a barrier. Obviously we wouldn’t give people books for free – we would invoice them at a certain point for the cost of the book if it was not returned. ‘But it would stop people being concerned if a book was a few days late.’ Portsmouth were considering the issue in 2009

“Assistant mayor Councillor Sarah Russell, who is responsible for libraries in the city, said: “A lot of time people are worried if a book has been damaged, or if they find it under a teenager’s bed when they move out of home – they decide to keep it rather than face the fines. “That’s why we hold amnesties every now and then, because it helps us as well as the library users. “It means we don’t have to spend money replacing missing items and we don’t have to spend energy chasing people up.”Leicestershire.

“You don’t want to penalize people for reading. Sometimes you’re really into a novel and it takes you a little longer to get through it. As it happens, you return a book two or three days late. It’s not a big deal. We can get over that,” Maghnieh said. “It’s a way of really rewarding our patrons for using the library.” Windsor Public Library, USA.  It is a growing trend in the USA not to charge fines at all.  Please also see this article on Massachusetts Libraries.

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