There was a great Seinfeld episode from 1991 called “The Library.” Jerry is pursued by a library investigations officer, Lt. Bookman. Apparently, he never returned the book Tropic of Cancer from his high school days in 1971. Although the episode never revealed the amount of fine Jerry eventually paid, an overdue book spanning 20 years would cost a pretty penny, even at just five cents per day.
Of course, it was utter nonsense. Anyone with a long-overdue (or lost) library book knows the most you can be fined is the cost of replacing the book. A quick check on Amazon reveals you can get a paperback copy of Tropic for less than $15.
I’ve had a library card since the fourth grade. I always tried to respect the return date. As kids, we didn’t have a lot of disposable income and nickels were hard to come by. Returning books on time to avoid a fine was not the primary reason. We were taught to have respect for the books in the library.
Since kids in the fourth and fifth grades didn’t necessarily have transportation to and from the main Massapequa Libraries (we had two of them), we depended on the Bookmobile. Every Wednesday, like clockwork, the Bookmobile would show up at Eastlake Elementary school, just outside the teacher’s parking lot.
Returning books on time taught us responsibility, but more importantly, we wanted the book available for the next kid. There was an unwritten rule to never take more books than you could read in a week because the bookmobile inventory was limited. If a particular book was not available, we could ask the mobile librarian to bring it next week. She often would do that for her best customers (like me). The responsibility and respect for borrowed library books stayed with me, even today.
Of course, I’ve missed a due date or two as an adult and had to pony up my share of late fees. One thing I have never done is dispute a late charge. I am especially aware of the due dates for new releases. The fines are more significant, but that’s not the reason. I know there are people on a waiting list, just like I was.
But now, Long Island libraries are joining the growing trend to no longer collect late fees for overdue items. Half of Long Island’s 110 libraries have already implemented the no-fee policy. Apparently, this encouraged people who felt alienated by the financial cost of returning an item late. I guess I missed the protests on the steps of the libraries over their draconian five-cents-per-day late fees after two weeks.
Following in the footsteps of cities like Chicago, San Francisco Seattle, and many more, all three New York City library systems recently stopped collecting overdue fees. Out here on Long Island, some libraries have gone completely feeless. In contrast, others have adopted a hybrid system that allows children and seniors to skip their fines. Just another perk for us seniors.
One would think that removing the specter of overdue fees would cause borrowers to take advantage and hang on to things longer, just because they could. Not so. Apparently, more people are returning borrowed items on time now than when there was a fine imposed.
That is probably because the biggest users of libraries today are people from my generation. We learned to accept its lending policies as kids and return books out of respect, not to avoid late fees. I wonder if 10 or 20 years from now, people will still be returning borrowed items on time if they don’t have to. I’ll bet every year, more and more people start hanging on to books just a little longer than before.
Respect and responsibility go only so far in human beings unless there is a “penalty” for non-compliance. Even if it’s only a nickel.
Paul DiSclafani’s new book, A View From The Bench, is a collection of his favorite Long Island Living columns. It’s available wherever books are sold.