Oh no! Library fines!

My partner just renewed an overdue DVD yesterday. We owe our library $6. Oh, the shame.* When I evangelize about how much money the library saves us, usually at least one person in the crowd looks regretful and says, “I can’t go to the library. I have fines.” Life happens and so do overdue books! Here’s how not to get traumatized by your fines—and how to avoid getting them in the first place.

The classic Mother Goose and Grimm cartoon.

The classic Mother Goose and Grimm cartoon.

Admit you have a problem and ask for help

Go to the library and talk with the librarians about your fines. Seriously. How long ago did you incur the fines? Your fines may already have been wiped from the system. If not, find out how much you owe.

Were there circumstances beyond your control which led to the fines? If something happened which left you unable to return your books on time, let your library know, and often fines can be forgiven.

After 9/11, the libraries that I used were all closed and it was impossible for me to get to a library to return my library books. When a library finally did open up in the area, the NYPL declared an amnesty period so that patrons (many in the area were unable to return to their homes to get their library books for some time) could take back their books, fine-free. Some libraries declare amnesty periods during National Book Week. The Los Angeles Public Library system created Fine Forgiveness Month this May. Call your library to find out if they have any amnesty periods—and make a plan to take your books back then!

My favorite fine forgiveness program belongs to the Queens Public Library—Read Down Your Fines! Sign up for the program at the Customer Service Desk of any Queens Library, and every half hour you read earns you a $1 voucher towards your library fines.

How much do you spend on books, movies, music, and other media a year?

Consider, too, how much you can save with a library card. How much do you spend on books, movies, music, and other media a year? If you pay off your library fines, you can get them for FREE. One of my friends bemoaned his $40 in library fines—until he realized that $40 was the price of three CDs and that by using his library card, he had access to a nearly endless collection of recorded music, music books, sheet music, biographies of musicians… He paid the $40 and hasn’t looked back.

If the library won’t budge on the fees you owe and paying it would be a hardship for you, I recommend saving your pennies. Literally. If you drop all of your change into a jar for three months, you should have enough to take care of your library fines.

One of the editors from Get Rich Slowly   saved $723 in seven months by putting aside his loose change  --more than enough to pay library fines!

One of the editors from Get Rich Slowly saved $723 in seven months by putting aside his loose change--more than enough to pay library fines!

NO to being nickel and dimed

Consistency and being informed are the keys to avoiding library fines. Here are my personal tips for avoiding library fines.

  • Use the library that’s most convenient for you. The library closest where I lived was difficult for me to get to when it was open. Instead, I frequented the library closest to my subway stop—on its late night. Check your library branch locations and schedules to figure out which one is best for your schedule.
  • Have a regular library day. If you visit the library every week to check out books, you will also be in the right place to return your books every week.
  • Get a printout of your items out when you’re at the checkout desk. Put it wherever you can refer to it—on your bulletin board, on your fridge, in your planner. This is a good strategy if you have multiple library users in your household or if one of your library users is not computer-friendly.
  • Have a place in your house where library books live when they’re not being actively read. Check what’s in your library pile against what you have out. If a book isn’t there, go find it and put it where it belongs.
  • Use the online system to renew if you need to. Go in and renew your checked-out items on a regular basis. This strategy really works for tech-minded people.

Renee from Little Earthling Blog uses many of the same strategies I do, but since she has FOURTEEN children she has more tricks.

  • Check on drop off locations.
    Our libraries here allow us to drop off books at any branch and at several other locations (such as the grocery store). Find out where alternate drop off locations are and make it easy on yourself!
  • Take a photo.
    You can take a quick picture with your cell phone as soon as you get home (or before if you kids love to read books on the way home from the library).  This way you will have a simple visual record of the books you checked out.
  • Track them with an app on your phone.
    Inside Higher Ed has a great rundown of apps that you can use to catalog your home library. You could just as easily download one of the apps to your phone and log your library books.
  •  Use only one library card.
    At our local library, each patron can borrow 75 items at a time. We have nine kids living at home right now and Chuck and I each have our own library cards… that means our family can check out a total of 825 books, movies and CDs before we go over our limit. Does that number scare you? Because that is the stuff of nightmares for this minimalist mama.
       By limiting books to one card it is easier to check online to see what is out, pay fines (who wants library fines spread out on eleven different cards) and keep our book borrows activities in check.

Kay Marner, a former library employee and mother to a child with ADHD, detailed her library fine avoidance strategies for ADDitude magazine:

  • Check your account weekly, on Library Day, before leaving home. Most libraries offer online access to account information. If yours doesn’t, call the circulation department or keep your printed receipts. Locate every item checked out on your account, whether it is due to be returned that day or not. This will help prevent a last-minute scramble to find a missing book the following week. Decide which materials to return and which ones to keep.
  • If you wish to renew items, do so (online or by phone) before leaving home. That way, if an item won’t renew, you’ll avoid an extra trip to return it. Renewing items only on your Library Day keeps all due dates to that day of the week.
  • Consider setting specific limits for how many items your child can check out. Some children are overwhelmed by the choices available and will take home as much — or more — than they can carry or possibly read. Checking out 10 picture books and one DVD per week or three chapter books and two music CDs, for example, makes it easy to gather up your returns before your next visit.

Andrea Thorpe, who writes the EmbracingHim blog, wrote out her library book tracking methods for Bright Ideas Press:

  • Check to see if your library offers courtesy reminders. Many libraries now send emails text messages or make phone calls to remind patrons of approaching due dates. If your library offers such services, sign up for them.
  • Set reminders on your electronic devices. This will free you from having  to keep track of everything mentally. Enter weekly reminders that will prompt you to return library materials. Those whistles, buzzes, chirps, and alarms can help you avoid fines.
  • Ask someone else to track due dates. Perhaps one of your children can keep of due dates. Consider adding this task to his or her list of chores and offer treats or other incentives for each time you leave the library without fines.
I love it when I meet a library cat--but the ones I've met at the checkout desk have been MUCH friendlier.

I love it when I meet a library cat--but the ones I've met at the checkout desk have been MUCH friendlier.

Consistently late? Go electronic.

If your schedule won’t let you have a regular library day, then why not go electronic? When the checkout period for an ebook is up, the books just disappear from your e-reader. No fines! No heavy bag of books to return! Check and see what kind of e-reader software your library uses. Mine uses Overdrive, with books also available in Kindle and Nook formats. Note that the Kindle and Nook e-reader apps are free, whether or not you own a Kindle or a Nook.

Laura M. Browning, an A.V. Club staffer, says that the auto-disappear/no fines feature on library ebooks is “crucial to somebody like me, who is (likely) blacklisted in five (really) different library systems in two states.” She evangelizes further,

I spent $70 five years ago on a Kindle that doesn’t have any bells and whistles, but it also doesn’t weigh more than my index finger, so I couldn’t be happier with it. I use it almost exclusively to borrow from the Chicago Public Library, to whom I would owe a lot more than $70 in late fees without this feature. I maintain an extensive wish list, and I use the holds feature to notify me when books are available. And then, after 21 days, the book disappears without costing me a cent. (Protip: If you need more time, turn off wi-fi before your due date. As soon as you switch wi-fi back on, the book will disappear from your device.)
— Laura M. Browning, A.V. Club staffer


Face your fines—it’s worth it. 

* I always figure that whatever I pay in fines is nothing compared to how much value I’ve gotten out of the library.