A week or so ago, an old friend of my wife’s said to me, in the midst of a conversation about how much she enjoyed using her public library’s resources, that her busy schedule–work and taking care of two sub-five-year old toddlers–sometimes made her return her borrowings late, bringing a host of late fees in its wake. But, she went on, she didn’t mind: paying those monies to the public library almost felt virtuous. I nodded, and chimed in, “Yeah, I never mind paying late fees to a public library either.”
Talk about making a necessity into a virtue. I’m forgetful and disorganized and distracted (and perhaps absent-minded too.) I often return books late–to the libraries at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. (And before that, to the libraries at every academic institution I have attended.) Till recently, Brooklyn College would not levy late fees on faculty members so I got away scot-free there. Not so much at the CUNY Graduate Center, which shows no mercy to its professorial staff and has cleaned up a pretty packet from me over the years. (We’ve been ‘together’ some twenty years now; the smallest fine I’ve paid was no more than a quarter; the biggest, about five dollars.)
But I don’t mind paying late fees, that is true: every time a librarian looks up at from her terminal and announces the latest monetary sanction, I fork out the lucre without protest. And it is true too, that I feel oddly virtuous after this act; I suspect I regard these payments as a donation of sorts, a charitable contribution to a perennially cash-strapped institution. As my friend said, “the public library can use all the money it gets.”
Late fees, of course, are not supposed to be regarded so. They are penalties for the inconvenience we have subjected other patrons of the library to; we have made unavailable the books and materials they need and perhaps forced recall notices to be sent (which might consume precious temporal and financial resources). They might, indeed, as they probably are by librarians, be viewed as sanctions for the selfish. The most appropriate response to the levying of a late fee would appear to be one of suitable penitence: perhaps a muttered, shame-faced apology, perhaps a grim resolve never to bother librarians and fellow patrons again, perhaps a head-bowed incognito slinking away from the circulation desk.
Yet, still: I like paying late fees to libraries/I cannot lie/you other patrons cannot deny. The libraries I use always appear cash and resource hungry: the stacks could always use more titles, the journal stores could do with more subscriptions. I doubt the tiny amounts I pay enable any satisfaction of these needs but perhaps the grand cumulative total paid by all of us delinquents will. Perhaps it could just help pay for a slightly swankier holiday party–some classy wine, food not ordered from the lowest bidder, a taxi fund for those who wish to get really, really sloshed?–for the librarians (especially the ones at the reference desk, who keep answering my amateurish questions.)
I assure you: I aspire to return books on time. But the late fee isn’t an adequate deterrent for bad behavior in this dimension.