Why do we collect fines for students returning books late?
"To teach them responsibility!"
"To help them learn how to stay on schedule!"
"To make them accountable for their actions!"
In my experience, holding kids' feet to the fire when it comes to library fines accomplishes one goal: to create students who hate coming to the library.
Fines create aversions to using the library for fear of debt or disapproval (real or imagined) from their teachers and librarians.
Students, especially in middle school, don't have the ability to earn money to pay off fines. And with our school's transient population, parents often times do not have expendable income to pay for their children's transgressions. We struggle with the public perception that libraries are unyielding places with stern, judgmental librarians. Here's where we can soften, and here's where we can continue our quest to support student achievement.
My philosophy is that I'd rather see students become readers than see them pay fines. My students know this, and so do all of our teachers. So I let them "read off" their fines.
Our exchange rate? 10 minutes of reading= $1.00 off their fines.
Anything under $1.00? 10 minutes. 20-cent fine? 10 minutes. $1.60 fine? 20 minutes. We round UP for reading. I'm strict on that part.
Last year, we waived $762 in fines because students read. That's 127 hours of reading!
No forms, no petitions, no forged parent notes. Students can either read with me in the library or with any teacher (or adult) in the building, any time they have time. The student simply has to tell their teacher that they have some fines to read off, write their beginning time down, then read. The teacher signs off, and the kid returns a note from their teacher in their agenda, on a Post-It, or gets their teacher to send an email. I waive that amount off their fines with an explanatory note in Destiny for our bookkeeping.
And the great part? I let reading classes participate in this as well--if they're reading in the library with their lit class, they're double-dipping: doing their assignment for class as well as paying their debt to society.
Testing season is big business for this program, too! I know kids can always get caught up with their fines by reading when they're done testing, since they can't do anything else.
I do have limits. If a student owes more than $5.00 in fines, I'll let them check out only one book. One physical book, that is. At the same time, I'll let them know about the TONS of e-books and digital audiobooks we have in our collection so that they can have a wide variety of reading material to choose from--all without a chance of being late, lost, or damaged.
Speaking of damages, the same policy applies, though this time, with work. Students with damages have the opportunity to do simple tasks to improve the library: straightening shelves, cleaning tables, re-organizing the Makerspace, even pulling books for book displays. What I often find with these students is that, even after they've worked off their debt, they keep coming back to help. Students want to be of use. Like all of us, they want to be valued.
In our county, we are required to collect fines from students. Our county also allows us the room and creativity to decide how best to do this. At my school, we've chosen a different path.
More schools in our county have innovated in other ways, collecting canned goods and school supplies. One school even does a March Madness celebration where students pay just 1/10th their fines. My high-school partner Keara Rubin (@RiverRidgeLibrary) allows students to donate gently used books to pay off their fines (again, $1 per book). As a result, she's been able to help replenish elementary and middle school libraries, classroom libraries, and community programs. Teachers have their classes compete in order to win the incentive of their choice, and the winning teacher receives a gift basket with donations from local businesses.
Future-ready libraries (and librarians) are about creating and sustaining community. We make mistakes and we learn from them. There are second chances in all phases of our lives, from getting your driver's license to getting a divorce. Our libraries need to give those second chances, too. And maybe create some readers along the way.