Libraries and childrenLibrary fines are one of the most stereotypical bugaboos in public-library land. If we pressure our customers over them too much, we can push ourselves into the repressed-librarian-stereotype zone. If we forgive everyone their sins, our bosses aren’t happy.

Whenever I give a classroom of kids a tour of the library, I always gesture around the children’s area expansively and tell students that:

“Everything you see here – the books, the videos, the computers – belongs to all of us. Your parents paid taxes so we could have them for you, and we all share them. You can check them out for free, but you have to remember to bring them back. If you don’t – BUZZ – you have to pay a fine. I don’t know why they call it a fine, because nobody I know thinks it’s fine to have to pay one. We people in the library hate charging people fines, but you know what?

“Unless we do, lots of people will say, ‘Ehh – I’ll bring that stuff back to the library when I get around to it.’ But once they have to pay some money every day – it’s a funny thing – people start bringing those books and DVDs in a lot faster.”

(Sorry – forgive my jokey style – but you get the point.) All of this leads up to…

Expressing surprise over the fact that the Queens Public Library will refer long-standing unpaid fines and unreturned books on users’ accounts to a collection agency, a story in today’s New York Times is titled “Late Library Books Can Take Toll on Credit Scores.” The story begins:

Librarians in Queens do not like to talk about the scofflaws who rack up fines for late books. They prefer to call them “clients” or “patrons” who owe “extended-use fees.” Competing against a tide of video games and cable shows, they are loath to scare away anyone who wants to read.

But their patience has limits. When provoked, they play hardball.

The story goes on to say that by using a collection agency, they’ve brought in an extra $11.4 million. But a “scofflaw” rabbi in the Rockaway area of Queens whose fines had mounted to $295 was so incensed about having his credit rating damaged that he is suing the library.

The story also mentions that the Queens Library has a “Read Down Your Fees” program for young people under 17; they can earn $1 per half hour (not an hour, as the story says) by reading in the library under the staff’s supervision. “During the last fiscal year,” the story says, “16,612 children were forgiven $24,734 in fines through the program.” (Which, um, means that the average kid who participated had $1.49 forgiven – not a huge amount, but the library’s trying to do the right thing, at least.)

I’m always glad to see libraries not too fixated on fines for kids. I’m sure you’ve noticed how, in popular-culture portrayals of librarians, there’s always some kind of reference to librarians as repressed shushers, obsessing over fines. We in libraries now must continue to do our duty to 1) not be repressed (i.e., don’t be afraid to be spontaneous, sing, dance, and tell jokes); 2) not give our users too hard a time about quieting down, and 3) forgive fines whenever appropriate, especially when kids and parents are involved. Deciding when to enforce and when to say “no problem, of course!” can be a fine balance – it’s like standing barefoot on the edge of a razor sometimes – but I think we all want this generation of kids to grow up bearing good thoughts about libraries and librarians.