To fine or not to fine?

Published on 25 January 2021, by Jenny Toller

Library management systems, Circulation and counter activities

That is the question…

In the SWIMS Network we’ve recently put fining for overdue items under the spotlight. We’ve been looking into whether SWIMS Network library services charge fines or not, and their reasons, and also trends in library fining generally.

Here’s why we did that, and what we found out. 

In March 2020 we went live with a replacement regional library management system. A new system needs a lot of configuration, and with limited capacity available we need to decide priorities for the work.  Most of the configuration work benefits all library staff and end users, and so this is our highest priority, but some libraries request local configuration requirements.  One of these is management of fines, as a small number of our libraries charge fines for overdue items. 

It became clear that configuring the system for fines management would require a fair amount of work, which prompted us to review library fining generally.  We carried out a survey of our 29 library services.  How many libraries charge fines?  What are their reasons?  Have any stopped recently, and if so have they noticed any consequences?  We also looked at literature reviews on the subject. 

A literature review carried out for the BASE Patch1 in the West Midlands in 2019 didn’t find any particular trend in health libraries; however it did reveal a trend away from charging fines in both public and higher education libraries.  

An update to that review carried out by the Health Education England Knowledge Management team in 20202 confirmed this trend away from library fining. The review summarised a number of arguments in the literature for not charging fines: 

  • they are discriminatory from a socioeconomic angle;  
  • they are unnecessary membership barriers
  • they are bad for reputational risk especially if seen as income generation (even if there is re-investment in resources).  

The review concluded that it is hard to see a case for them.  

These arguments were also reflected in the results of a 2020 survey of libraries in the SWIMS Network.  Reasons not to fine or to stop fining also included: 

These arguments   were  also reflected  in  the  results of  a   2020  survey of libraries in the SWIMS Network .  R easons not to fine  or to stop fining  also  included:  

  • they can jeopardise customer relations and staff can feel uncomfortable imposing them
  • they incur administrative burden and cost including of having a cash register
  • they may deter people accessing resources they need  
  • they may be seen as some kind of fee to use the service so actually encourage users to keep items longer
  • they may not be in line with trust guidelines 
  • with increasing use of cashless payments – especially in light of coronavirus – there is a barrier to collection for libraries without the necessary technology 

Reasons to fine included: 

  • they encourage people to return their books in good time so that they circulate 
  • they generate some income 
  • historical reasons (unspecified!)  

Both libraries which fine and those which don’t mentioned the need to consider alignment with other services in the locality, including higher education libraries. However, a further consideration with regionally-shared NHS library managements system like ours – which enable users to easily move between library services as they move between employers – is the administrative complexity involved where users with outstanding fines move to libraries which don’t fine. 

Neither the literature reviews nor the survey provided any concrete evidence for the benefits of fining, either on stock circulation or user relations.  In terms of impact on stopping fining, one comment from the SWIMS Network survey stands out: 

“Along with letting people eat in the library long with letting people eat in the library , it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done gs we’ve ever done.

We would be interested to know if colleagues in different parts of the country have differing views on this question! 


Jenny Toller 

Library and Knowledge Services Development Manager, South West and South East (Thames Valley and Wessex) 




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