…and how to support your library

Since I was 16, I’ve been employed (for the most part) in libraries. Sometimes in shelving, sometimes at the circulation desk, sometimes in Technical Services (we’re the people who make sure the new materials are ready for the patrons). And one thing that’s common to every library I’ve worked in, whether or not I was the one handling them, is the overdue fines.

Working in circ last year, I handled them all the time. It seemed like one out of three customers had some kind of fine–whether it was $0.15 or $65…or more.

One of the most common things people say when paying a library fine is “Well, at least I’m supporting my library.”

Here’s the sad news–you’re not. Not really. Not in most places.

I haven’t often told patrons this to their faces. Thinking they’re supporting their library makes it less painful to pay the fines. If they’re finding a bit of consolation, I feel bad pulling that away.

At the same time, if it’s letting them form a habit of bringing books back late, then perhaps it’s better they know the truth. So here you are folks, the truth about what the library systems I’ve worked in do with the money.

County libraries give the fine money to the county. It doesn’t go directly to your library or even to the library system. It’s like paying a ticket. Some of it will make its way back into funding libraries, but if you want to help your library financially, there are other ways.

Academic libraries sometimes get to keep it. But, except for in the audiovisual departments, they get a lot less in fines.

So what can you do for your library?

If you’d like to give a little back to your local library, there are a couple ways you can do that.

1) Become a Friend of the Library. Most libraries have a Friends group. These people may pay for a special collection, a special feature (i.e. puzzles, blocks, and other toys for the childrens’ area), or even rebuilding/expanding the library.

If you want your money to make your library better, this is one great way to do it. Even $5 is a start.

2) Donate books to the library. Be aware that not all of them will get used. Many libraries have a small used books section where they sell books that they don’t want for the collection. That money does go the library. In my experience, donated books go to three places–collection, used book area, and dumpster.

So if you want to do your library the most good, donate books that will either be suitable for their collection or be attractive to people browsing used books. 1970s encyclopedias rarely do the trick.

3) Donate your time to the library. As library budgets get slashed like Sweeney Todd’s customers, libraries are hemorrhaging employees and employee hours. Positions are cut, hiring freezes are enacted, the situations in some libraries are becoming so bad that support staff are leaving for non-library positions.

Many of the worst-affected libraries are expanding their volunteer programs. If you can put letters and numbers in order and get the concept of location stickers, they’ll probably take you.

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Miranda August 3, 2009 at 10:10 am

This is a great eye-opener for me. I didn’t realize how library fines worked. I was never in the “at least I’m supporting…” camp, though. I more often just think about this way: I kept the book overdue, I pay the fine. Take what you want, and pay for it.
.-= Miranda´s last blog ..Saturday Staples: Personal Finance Reading =-.

mrsmicah August 3, 2009 at 10:13 am

@Miranda That’s what I would tell patrons who couldn’t renew a book they desperately wanted to keep. I’d say “Well, from here on it’s like renting a video. You can keep it and finish it if you’re willing to pay the 5 cents or 15 cents a day.”

Michael August 4, 2009 at 12:48 pm


I owe $50 and I was telling myself that to feel better about it.

Cat August 4, 2009 at 5:18 pm

I asked my librarian once, and luckily in my area the fines do actually go to the library (the book fund specifically). I’ll have to look into volunteering though, I hadn’t thought of that!
.-= Cat´s last blog ..Zappos =-.

Roger August 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Well, that’s kind of depressing; not that I pay fines very often, but it does make any future fines even worse, knowing that I won’t even be supporting the library.
.-= Roger´s last blog ..Why Investors Care About Dividends =-.

mrsmicah August 9, 2009 at 9:40 pm

@Michael Sorry. At least it’s still going to county stuff like roads and schools, right?

@Cat that sounds like a better setup. I think they should go to the library, since libraries always need more funding.

@Roger guess you gotta return books on time, then. 😉 Or look at it as renting the book for a short period, still normally cheaper than buying.

Jessica August 30, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Actually, where fines go has to do more with how the public library is set-up. The one I work in is not a city or county entity, we’re funded by a tax district set-up solely for the library. Fines in our library are used for developing the collection, they do not go to any other place outside the library. Coincidentally, this is also why our library was not hit by the recession the way the neighboring city-run library was. They have to cut their staff by almost half because the city budget can’t support them as is.

Joining the friends of the library group is a great idea, our group has an ongoing sale of used books all year and two mega sales a year. There are plenty of people out there who are unaware of what libraries can do for the community and some who are actually anti-library, so advocating for your library is a great things to do!

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