What's the point of library fines?
Cambridge University has just announced a dramatic decrease in the money paid in library fines at the University Library. The amount paid by students, they say, went down from £27,635 in 2006-7, to £20,503 in 2007-8. This is said to be 'good news' and the reason is the new automated renewal system: you now get an email telling you that the book is about to become overdue and you can renew it online. You dont even have to set foot in the library.
That still didn't stop some eager students of the ancient world being caught out. Some young fan of Marco Fantuzzi and Richard Hunter coughed up £75 for Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry (a fine volume, which they had presumably lost -- £75 being roughly what it costs). Another diligent young scholar had stumped up £96.59 for Gregory of Nyssa's, Homilies on the Beatitudes.
But is the fall in fines really such good news?
That depends on what you think fines are for.
One obvious answer to that question is that they are an income generating device. Think of something that everyone will do (drive at more than 30 miles an hour, commit adultery or -- in this case -- need a book for longer than a fortnight), charge money for it -- and hey presto you have a nice little income stream. On that model, this downturn is very bad news indeed. It means fewer books bought for the library.
Or it could be to keep books 'in circulation', and to stop any one individual hogging a particular title. Well here again we have bad news. The online renewal system means that it simply becomes easier and cheaper to 'hog'. In my own case, I have had Tony Harrison's Trackers of Oxyrhyncus out of my Faculty Library for more than two years now. It's in my room somewhere, but I dont know exactly where. Every time the email reminder comes, I renew it (though after this online cobfession that happy situation is likely to come to an end).
It seems to me that it's only good news if you think of fines a punishment -- and a decrease in them signals a decrease in malefaction. There always has been a bit of a sense that fines are levied on the 'naughty'. When I had once lost a book from the University Library (a crime about which I was terrified, though they were very nice), I was taken down to the bowels of the building to cough up the replacement cost -- and there I discovered that they had a computer database listing all the fines I had paid at the library for years. It was a bit like seeing your criminal record or the points on your licence. (In this case it showed the staff that I was not a persistent offender.)
Certainly when I was an undergraduate (not now...!), the people in the UL used to take what seemed like sadistic pleasure in levying the fine. One of them got splutteringly cross when I responded to the bill for £2.75 or whatever by saying that I didn't see it as a "fine" so much as an "extended use fee". He nearly doubled it on the spot.
Perhaps the real truth here is that librarians have just got nicer.