By In Applied Ethics, Character, Ideas, Virtue Comments (6)

The Morality of Library Fines

My local library fines its patrons ten cents per overdue book per day. They will let you continue to borrow books as long as your fine balance is less than $10. As an academic, I sort of think of library fines as a cost of doing business, and I frequently carry a balance in library fines of a few dollars. (To be clear: I mostly incur these fines on books taken out for pleasure reading. What I mean is that I don’t have a moralistic attitude about my library fines.) Since there are no interest charges or time limits, I can carry such a balance for months on end. I’m following the rules, not cheating anyone, and I have never felt bad about my habit of being a few bucks in debt to the library.


This is pretty much the same attitude I have toward all my bills. I try to pay my bills on time, because I don’t want late payment penalties or interest charges or my utilities cut off. If they will let me delay payment without penalties, I will take advantage of this if it’s convenient. In other words, in every financial transaction with an institution, I follow the rules, and within those rules I take whatever course of action is most convenient/prudent/utility-maximizing for me.

Things are different with debts toward individual people. If I borrow money from family or friends, I make a strenuous effort to pay it back as soon as possible. I would never drag a personal debt along just because the person didn’t need the money or wouldn’t harass me about it. Paying off debts quickly, not presuming on another’s good will, is a way of expressing one’s respect for the relationship and for the other person.

I have detected, in some people, an attitude about public library fines that is similar to the moralized attitude toward personal debts. That is, some people feel that incurring library fines at all is a (small) personal failing, and if you do incur them you should pay them off as soon as possible. Carrying them for lengthy periods of time is a character flaw. And all this is true regardless of the rules or penalties around fines and borrowing. On this view, of course, my attitudes and actions vis-à-vis my library fines are blameworthy.

I can think of two lines of argument to support the moralized view of library fines/fine-paying.

The Kantian argument: If everyone treated their library fines the way I do, the library system couldn’t go on. I am free-riding.

Reply: I’m not sure that’s true; I suspect library fines are a trivial part of the public library budget. But suppose it were. Then presumably the library system would crack down on freeloaders like myself, and I would pay my fines in that case. Then the library system would go on fine.  (Is that a defense?)

The expressivist argument: The public library system is one of the more gratuitous elements of the social contract in the US. Unlike sanitation or electricity, we could live well enough without it, which means you have no moral claim on society for its services, and they don’t have a lot of leverage against their patrons. There is a friendly, community-oriented … personal aspect to the very existence of public libraries. Prompt payment of library fines is one way to express respect and support for that gratuitous element of community, for the kind of communal relations that support institutions like public libraries.  In treating library fines like personal debts rather than mere financial transactions, one weaves another thread into the social fabric, and strengthens the bonds of social trust. (Can anybody make this argument sharper? I feel I have not done it justice.)

Reply: Really? I’m threatening the fabric of society by carrying $5 in library fines?

I’d be interested to know which side of this dispute people come down on, and whether there are any arguments I’ve missed.

6 Responses to The Morality of Library Fines

  1. Charles Young says:

    The fines are in place, I presume, to get the books back in timely fashion. The library wants the books back so they are more readily available for other users. Do you return the books but delay paying the fines?

  2. Heath White says:

    Charles,
    Correct. I get the books back always within a few days of the due date. I just delay paying the fines.

  3. Nathan says:

    Well, you’re obviously not free riding – at best the library has lost the interest it would have accrued between the point of non-payment and the point of actual payment. But I doubt fines are deposited in an account where this would be the case.
    Furthermore, you’re acting within the rules. The ability to pay later is a facility extended to all. Whilst some people may be in (actual) need of it and you are not, making use of it disadvantages no one. So, again, not ‘free-riding’.
    However you are, in a sense, behaving as if a fine was a price (See: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=180117 ) but this point pertains to incurring the fines in the first place rather than not paying them immediately. Furthermore, within certain limits, it may not be unethical to treat library fines in this way as it does not appear to inconvenience the staff, as is the case in the childcare example.
    (You may risk inconveniencing someone who wants a particular book you have, but it is a minor worry, especially if the library has a system for other borrowers to recall books).
    What could be said is that your refusal to immediately pay relatively trivial sums in library fines reflects badly on your character, but even that seems a stretch (and returning books in a tardy fashion seems more damning).
    One could find in favour of this behaviour if one considers it is less inconvenient for the library to process one payment of $10 rather than 10 of $1. Indeed, one could find in favour of incurring fines if the books one has are unlikely to be in demand and the fines provide additional revenue to the library – but such is the (il)logic of ‘rational actor’ policies.

  4. Drew says:

    Is your characterization of public libraries as ‘gratuitous’ accurate? No doubt for some of the population (those of us who can afford to buy books, pay for personal internet access, or who have access to our academic libraries) this characterization may be correct. But my neighborhood library (in an urban area) is more than just a book depository. It is an after-school tutoring and safe space for students, it hosts community meetings, it provides study materials and space for adults whom I see studying ESL and GED materials, and it’s probably no exaggeration to say it provides the only internet access for some of the neighborhood’s residents, which no doubt means their primary means of accessing the news, too. Given a different picture of what a public library means for many, it takes on a much larger civic and political significance than you suggest. (This is no doubt a somewhat idealized portrait of public libraries.)
    Using your expressivist argument, then, paying library fines is a way of showing support for an institution that has significant civic and political value. For those of us who can afford the fines, it could be that a failure to pay signifies our disrespect for an institution that is only of nominal personal benefit to us but extensive personal value for others (and public value, as well).

  5. Aaron says:

    It depends very much on the facts on the ground for the particular library. For a lot of public libraries the transaction is complicated by the fact that the revenue generated by fines goes into the public coffers, to the council or local government, rather than back to the library itself. And, if we suppose that the library’s budget is not tied to their skill at debt recovery, the outstanding fine one owes wouldn’t matter materially to the library at all. In a case like this, as was mentioned, the fine is meant to ensure that books come back on time. If delaying payment somehow waters down the deterrent effect, then there might be a problem with taking advantage of that option.

  6. Hubbell says:

    As an employee in the circulation department of two public libraries, I hope I can offer some perspective. These libraries charge either $.10 or $.20 per day for books and $.50 or $1.00 (!) per day for DVD’s. I do feel some patrons want to clear their debts immediately. I’ll even say.. “You have $3.00 in fines if you’d like to pay that today but you don’t have to.”
    Personally, I favor eliminating fines. The traditional public library model of individual property tax-based funding, in my opinion, should be all patrons need to pay. Their dollars buy the books and services and pay our wages (at least in my state). It seems unfair to me that we should charge for being “late” on what are, on their face, arbitrary loan periods.
    Fines of course exist to encourage patrons to return materials. However, this could be just as easily accomplished by billing patrons for the materials until they’re returned. Say, once an item is 30 or 60 days overdue, they receive a notice of their “delinquency.” If they return the materials, no fines, all good. If they don’t, eventually they’ll be billed for the cost of the item (and after a longer period of time sent to collections). Most patrons in my experience recognize the need to return materials for the good of the rest of the users.
    Other fine-free models I’ve heard of include giving patrons an annual credit of fines. So, each year a patron gets $20.00 of grace fines. If they end up racking up more than the agreed upon lee-way, then they start to be charged.