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Ending Library Fines is Overdue

November 27th, 2019 by dk

Springfield has decided it’s no longer in the city’s best interest to charge library fines, and now Eugene plans to follow that policy for books checked out by children. The logic behind the change is sound. Negative consequences are more likely to produce avoidance than learning, and libraries want to be first and foremost about learning.

I grew up in a different time. At my junior high school, we had an elderly librarian who was rumored to have served in World War II, and who may have been on the team that broke into Adolf Hitler’s safe after his suicide. It didn’t take long for the rumor to be addended, that she had been searching for an overdue book.

We understood the fear of God, but it was reserved for weekends. During the week, we mostly feared Miss Beck, who would shush us whenever we were having fun — which might have been why we equated her authority with that Sunday equivalent. All in all, we benefitted from the belief that we were being watched over.

When I moved my family to Eugene in 1995, we got our library cards immediately. I could immediately tell we had left New England far behind. The librarian helpfully explained to us that fines levied were not a penalty for enjoying the books for too long. The payment required simply covered the cost of mailing the reminder postcard after an item was overdue.

I accepted responsibility for keeping my young boys in check, deducting any “postcard reminder” fees from their weekly allowance. Additionally, I made darn sure that none of those dreaded postcards ever arrived at our house with my name on it. My wife wasn’t as careful and our marriage didn’t survive. You can draw your own conclusions. She did.

Training that’s rooted in fear is never as deep as we believe. Maybe we should push harder to find the positive reinforcements that shape behavior more reliably. Could librarians give stickers to those who return things on time. You might laugh, but “I voted” stickers work on adults.

I served a term or two on the Eugene Public Library Foundation’s board, and one of the perks we were offered was an exemption from library fines. I don’t know if that policy has changed, but I can tell you for certain that the policy changed me, and not for the better. It’s best if we just leave it at that.

I’m all for removing punishments from institutional forces in an effort to improve the population. The science is sound that these efforts work only as long as they are reinforced. Remove the consequence, and the bad habit immediately returns — even for a 40-something volunteer board member.

Should we wish to live in a world without consequences? Just now, I typed one of the words in the previous sentence with one too few consonants. If it had been the word that preceded it, this paragraph might have required an editor’s keen eye, because my automatic spell checker would have missed it — a word without consequences.

We need to experience consequences, because copy editors, librarians, and weekend deity figures can’t be everywhere.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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