Library Fines – the Netflix Model

I hadn’t intended to write more about library fines, but I came across this article about an Australian boy whose library debt (originally AU$7 for five late books, plus AU$15 for a damaged book) was turned over to a collection agency and became a total debt of AU$46.75.  I don’t have much comment on it, but it seems the library wasn’t really following its own guidelines (that is, debts over $25 would be referred to collection agencies).  Just a tidbit to file away in the back of the head in case someone brings up collection agencies in the future.

Before the Speak Out Southbridge blog closed, there had been a post about the Charlton library fine situation,and a commenter had mentioned the Netflix model as an alternative to library fines.

The city of Hayward, California, currently has a program called Fines-Free membership that substitutes an opt-in flat fee for fines.

Those who opt in can pay $2.99 to take out three items at a time, for as long as the patron wants, with no fines.  (For those who like to have more items out at a time, one can pay $4.99 for five items or $8.99 for ten items.)

What happens if someone has a book out for an extended period of time and someone else requests it?  Users could either request it from another library à la C/W MARS, or the library would purchase another copy.  Since the money from the Fines-Free membership program goes to buy library materials, the library would have the funds to purchase another copy.

What if a patron cancels his Fines-Free membership?  “Any library items checked out at the time of cancellation will be due back to the library within 7 days for DVDs and 21 days for other items; standard overdue charges apply.”

What about items borrowed from another library in the area’s C/W MARS-like system?  Those would still have due dates and fines associated with them.

There’s an interesting interview with the then-acting library director from a couple years ago when the program was being implemented.  The program — as far as I can tell — has not had a lot of takers.

I wonder if this kind of fee-based program would be more popular if it were combined with the other appealing aspect of Netflix: mailing items to users (as is done in Topeka, which also has a lot of drop boxes for books throughout the city).  In Orange County, items can be delivered via courier service, but need to be mailed (at a cost to the or returned to a library branch).

While combining a fee-based system similar to Netflix (along with the ability to have items mailed to you — and mail them back at no additional cost) is appealing, it’s worth remembering that companies like BookSwim already do a Netflix-for-books.  You’d pay about $30 a month to have five books out at a time.

I don’t think libraries need to reinvent this model.  If someone wants to spend $25 bucks a month for the privilege of keeping books out as long as they like, he can easily get his fix with an already-established company.

I think the future of libraries is not in providing a service similar to Netflix, but in providing services and materials that no one else can offer, in service of all residents. 

(I also think library patrons would be better served if they purchased inexpensive e-readers and encouraged the libraryto expand its digital holdings, which would eliminate worries about books checked out too long and overdue fees.  But I’m a Luddite!)

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