Chicago Public Library is embarking on a fine amnesty drive this month. The last one seemed to work really well for everyone:

The library reported receiving 101,301 overdue items, valued at about $2 million, and waived $641,820 worth of fines. The late materials ranged from items only a few weeks overdue to one book that had been due since 1934.

It’s really great that past amnesty programs worked out well for CPL, and I assume for other libraries that do them. Getting that material back benefits everyone, and the uncollected fine money probably won’t make much of a dent since fine revenue is usually a pittance in most public library budgets.

But I’m of two minds on this.

On the One Hand…

If you’ve got overdue fines or books, just suck it up and return them. I promise you the librarians will love to have you back. Your guilt will be assuaged and you won’t feel like a scofflaw when you come to the library to browse. (Also maybe don’t ignore the emails and calls reminding you your items are due soon. Someone could be on the hold list for that book or DVD, so just pull an Atticus Finch and imagine how it would feel to be that person.)

On the Other Hand…

If CPL or any other library wants to engender goodwill among patrons and get their material back, they should abolish overdue fines altogether and just bill the patron for a “presumed lost” book or lock their account after a certain amount of time, as many libraries have done.

giphy.gifI’m just a measly librarian with no power over budgets (and who doesn’t speak for his employers, past, present, or future), so woe unto me for dictating policy. But I don’t want for library staff to be high priests, absolving the masses of their bookish sins for a few weeks every couple of years. The public already owns the collection, technically. Nickel-and-diming patrons for what is largely just forgetfulness is what has earned librarians the stereotype of the shushing curmudgeon sitting upon their Reference Throne.

Librarians are stewards of the collection, not owners. Part of that stewardship involves ensuring fair access to material for all patrons, which is why libraries use fines. But the biggest collection in the world won’t be used to its greatest extent if its patrons are hesitant to check things out.

The books and movies and CDs and magazines on the shelf are just waiting to be used. Let ’em fly!