LibraryPages: Borrow, But Don't Read

Oct 26, 2013

Note: the following is not meant to be unduly critical of the library. I love the library! I just want to express my feelings and then hear your wise and unbiased opinions.

Yesterday, Aaron and I went to the library. When I tried to use the self check-out, a little message popped up and said there was a problem with my card. This was not surprising since our library recently revamped their computer system and changed their check-out/check-in systems, and in the last two months, I always seem to encounter some kind of problem.

So I made my way over to one of the real, live librarians and told her I couldn't check out. She scanned my card and said it was because there was a $29.00 fine on it and they only allow fines to go up to $25.00. My mouth gaped open in astonishment, and I spluttered, "That cannot possibly be true." I said that in good faith since I had checked my account just that morning and seen with my own two eyes that my fines amounted to a measly 80 cents.

"It's for a damaged item," she said. "A Mind at a Time."

I had just returned that book a few minutes before, and I feverishly racked my brain for what kind of damage I had done to it. Thrown it into the fire? No. Stomped on it in a wild dance? Not this time. Ripped it up in a fit of rage? It wasn't that kind of book.

The librarian could see I was getting flustered, so she beckoned to another librarian, who came over holding A Mind at a Time. I refrained from snatching it out of her hands.

"How is it damaged?" I asked. As she opened up the front cover, I remembered.

When I checked out the book, the first grouping of 20 pages was beginning to pull away from the binding. During the few weeks of opening, closing, holding, and reading it, the pages had come all the way out--but were still glued together in their own little group.

So there it was. My abuse was not in burning or stomping or ripping, but in reading.

I rushed to defend myself: "I didn't do that! The pages were already coming out when I got the book."

Apparently, the librarian holding the book had been in the process of writing me an email. I almost wish it had been sent before we got things resolved. I would have loved to know what she was saying. Instead, she said, "Oh, that's fine. Next time, just make sure you tell us about the problem when you return the book."

So the fine is gone. And I should be happy. But I'm still a bit rankled for three reasons:
  1. I check out well-used items from the library all the time: board books with flaps missing, paperbacks that are bent and scuffed, DVDs that are so scratched they skip more than they play. Am I really going to have to start reporting how all these items are damaged when I return them just so that I don't accrue unwarranted fines?
  2. As items get read and used, it should be expected that a certain amount of wear and tear will occur. Even under the best handling, an item can only be passed between so many hands before it starts to show its age. How do you decide who is responsible for the damage when it was the work of several different people reading the book?
  3. The book was still very readable (so readable I forgot to even mention the damage when I turned the book in--and, rather ironically, I did mention some problems with a picture book I was checking in at the same time). Even if the damage had been completely the result of my negligence and my mistreatment, I still don't think I should have had to pay the full cost to replace the book. If the book was so damaged it had to be retired, then yes, of course. But if it was merely going to be repaired and placed back on the shelf? Then charge a fine for damage but not an entire replacement fee.
Mike and I were talking about the whole situation, and we both half-seriously agreed that I maybe should have paid the $29.00 just as a way of saying thank-you for the thousands of dollars worth of books we've checked out over the years. Or because our own little bits of damage (a DVD scratch here or a crease or small tear there) have probably added up to $29.00. I certainly do not want to be stingy in regards to the library because I love that system so much, and my life would be completely different without it.

However, I also want to be fair.

And in all fairness, there have been many times when I've mentioned damage that we've done to books. I'm definitely not trying to get away with abuse. The funny thing is, because the damage was small, they've always just smiled and said something like, "Oh don't worry about it. That book has been around forever. That's what happens when you read a book."

This time was just so surprising and unexpected. I don't know if they're trying to crack down a little and make patrons more responsible or if this particular librarian was just a little over-zealous.

I would welcome any feedback, particularly from current- or former-librarians. Is it too optimistic to hope I have a silent reader or two who works in one of the Salt Lake City libraries? How about other moms who have had to deal with the dilemma of reporting damage? Do other libraries charge a damage fee, or is it all or nothing? Please share your opinions (but of course, do so kindly!).


  1. Interesting... I have never had a similar experience. I think some books have been around for a while and after so many people use them they get worn out. I don't think its really ethical to charge the person who happens to have checked it out when it finally falls apart. And what are they going to do? Contact every person who ever checked out the book and exact a percentage to purchase a new one? No. This was kind of a silly thing to happen.
    Just about every time I have pointed out a problem with an item I have checked out (usually picture books) the librarian makes a comment on it probably having had a lot of use. It seems like our library system has a policy covering *New* items and those ones you would need to replace. I know a librarian said something about this to me once when my young child destroyed two books we had checked out and they were both older books.
    Anyway, those are my thoughts... in my opinion you got a cranky librarian who loses her crankiness when confronted with the patron. I would have liked to see that e-mail as well, hmmmm.

  2. I tweeted this and tagged Josh Hanagarne. He works in a Salt Lake library.

    There really is a limit to the number of times a book can change hands. Why should the last person to borrow it pay the fine? Know what I mean? I think your post will make me look over books more carefully before checking them out. I know we've borrowed some children's books that were barely hanging together, and I never thought to say anything beforehand. Good post!

  3. No, I don't think it's fair to charge a patron for a book that's obviously been in the system for a long while. This hasn't happened to me, but it makes me a little bit nervous now. Especially for all the board books we check out, my son isn't exactly gentle with them. This is yet another reason why I love downloading audio and ebooks (how could you ever be charged for damage there?)


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