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Not Fine With No Fines

May 12th, 2022 by dk

I love libraries. I’d hate to see one of the most egalitarian enterprises in the free world collapse under the weight of its own good intentions. The Eugene Public library no longer levies late fees. Springfield has been edging in this direction for many years, as have library systems across the nation. I think that’s a mistake.

When I moved my family to Eugene in 1995, our first stop was for library cards. We did this before going to the grocery store. Feed the mind before the body.

We loved everything about Eugene from the start, except the aging library on 13th Avenue. We quickly joined forces with others who shared our discontent. We organized a fun event to mark Theodore Geisel’s birthday. Movers and shakers came to read their favorite Dr. Seuss book. Seussapalooza lured to the library people who hadn’t been inside for years.

I even threatened to start a movement to expose the building’s shortcomings. If everyone returned all checked-out items at once, the library wouldn’t have had room for all its books. (More than a third of its books were stored in people’s homes for a few weeks at a time.) The aisles would clog with extra books like Smith Family Bookstore. It would have been the first recorded protest of civil obedience.

Eugene saved itself this trouble by approving a wonderful new library that is aging quite nicely. My newspaper helped pay for internal improvements by challenging the S.L.U.G. Queens to raise more money than us. The prize: naming rights to the bathrooms.

Forgoing fines is a bad idea for Eugene. Here’s why.

Consequences are a necessary ingredient to a civil society. When we live in villages where everybody knows one another, those consequences can be subtle and uncodified. Blue River’s library didn’t have a lock on its front door for most of its storied history — what would be the point? Everything inside was free.

One of my most memorable pangs after losing my tiny home to the 2020 Holiday Farm fire was waking to worry that my borrowed items were incinerated with everything else. I wouldn’t be able to return them! It occurred to me only moments later that there was no longer a place for those items to be returned to! Our brains are funny.

We had scofflaws in Blue River, but we knew who they were. And they knew we knew. Small systems like that can self-organize and self-correct. Larger systems like Eugene don’t have that luxury. Remove consequences for individuals and the collective will suffer. Removing consequences will sever connections between the whole and its parts.

What’s to prevent an entrepreneur from borrowing books and selling them on eBay to make their rent? After all, the landlord continues to enforce consequences. Will people borrow the heaviest tomes available and use them to level their sagging foundation? The Hank Stampers of the world sometimes need a great notion. (Have you priced building supplies lately?)

Am I suggesting that the Eugene Public Library should never give an inch? No, not exactly. I understand that getting people to read and borrow books is their mission. Collecting fines is an unwelcome distraction. So charge the late fees but don’t collect them.

I remember senior citizens being evicted from their homes when they fell too far behind on their property taxes. It was not a good look, and it led to significant tax reforms. But civil order is not a photo op. Most communities now record those unpaid taxes and collect them (with interest) when the property is sold.

Could the library do the same? It sounds silly, but more sensible than ignoring the problem completely.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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