Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Fine System

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

I feel greatly privileged that my local library has such a vast collection of films, books and music. I appreciate the fact that I can go there at any time and take advantage of what is on offer. It is not like that everywhere, I know. Anything I could ever want is on hand and sometimes they order from other libraries too, if they do not have a copy.
Some time back I requested a new Tom Waits CD called 'Orphans.'
Because the album was brand new and in high demand, there were a good number of people on the list in front of me, also waiting for it. This is a list I can see regularly on the Internet on our library account. When somebody checks the item back in, you can see the long list get smaller. I do that when it is something I am waiting anxiously for and looking forward to with enthusiasm. "Hurray!" I will shout to my Spouse on a slow day. "Number 9 brought back 'Orphans!" And Spouse will cheer and we will feel that bit closer to hearing the music.
After ordering, I calculated that, according to the number of people in front of me, I should get the CD within two months.
That was last May.
This is October.
Something was not adding up. How could people be so slow to return an item? I could only think that people were, for some reason unknown to me, willing to fork out enormous library fines for keeping a CD weeks overdue.
Surely with that money they could have bought their own copy of the CD?
I am most particular about bringing back library items on time, as is my Spouse. We bring them back days before they are due. It not being mine, I will not keep it longer than I need to watch/read/listen.
It seemed that library patrons were keeping the album for weeks at a time. Not understanding the mentality of people who are reluctant to hand back library property, I searched on the library website to see what sort of stiff fines we were talking about.
I did indeed find a note about library fines. I read it once, twice, showed my Spouse, who read it once, twice. This could not be possible, surely?
The following day, having to return a book, we made it our business to ask the librarian about the note we had seen. She would, hopefully, say that it was a ghastly mistake on the website and of course it did not make any sense.
"So," we said, "can you tell us about your policy on library fines?"
"Oh," she said, clucking and shaking her head, "we don't fine people now. We stopped all that."
It was true, then. Horror of horrors.
"You don't fine people? At all?"
"No. They weren't paying and it was getting difficult so we abolished the fines."
"But what incentive do people have to bring anything back?"
"Oh, sometimes they don't bring back the book but then we send them a letter."
"A letter. I see."
"Yes. After two months they get a harsh letter."
Oh, my. I can see them trembling already.
"Why did you stop, though? People can just keep things, anything they want!"
"We trust people," she said kindly. "Some folks bring them back, and some don't."
"So. No more fines, then." I just wanted to verify one last time.
"No more fines." She beamed as she said it, as if we should be pleased.
I am awfully sorry, Madam Librarian, but you smiled at the wrong couple. We happen to think that library fines are a perfectly good idea, one that was part of our consciousness growing up, one that is ingrained in our personalities and a completely natural instinct. I do not take any selfish pleasure from the fact that we return everything on time just as we do not pat ourselves on the back for stopping at red lights or not leaping in front of people when there is a line at the grocery store.

Let me attempt to sum up the new policy: nobody was paying their dues so the cunning library brains dreamed up the idea to do away with fines entirely so that they would not have to hand over the same fines they were not paying anyway, and...oh, dear. It is all too much for me, this twisted logic.
What happened to responsibility?
Why are we so afraid to make people pay what they owe?
Are we afraid of offending them or of violating their human rights?
That is what it all comes down to: being responsible.
I would think that if people are not returning borrowed items, they need to be fined. If they do not pay their dues, they ought to have their access restricted.

I feel quite strongly about this. I am unable to see the good this no-fine library policy has done for us. Of course it is not just about libraries. It is a growing trend, and a frightening one, to shun responsibility and, if we can, to blame somebody else.

We have an issue with fixing real problems, it seems. That infiltrates all aspects of our lives; if we think somebody else is responsible for our dilemmas then I am afraid that we shall never get out of any trouble, be it financial or personal.

'The Little Prince,' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is one of my favourite books in the world. These lines mean a lot to me when I consider that we each have to do our part to make things better:

"It's a question of discipline," the little prince told me later on.
"When you've finished washing and dressing each morning,
you must tend your planet."

I do not suggest that library fines will save the world but they do instigate a certain discipline, without which we are sorely lost.

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