Fines, Day Cares, and Ebooks: How is Your Library Assigning Value?

By Kate Sheehan |

Does your library charge fines? For everything? I've been chatting with a couple of libraries that don't charge fines for books, but do charge them for DVDs and videos. One library finds that their books often don't come back. Or that they come back months late. Not so with the DVDs and videos. Fines, they conclude, are the way to get materials back.

That's not an unreasonable assumption. However, the day care study cited in Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational suggests that the real problem is the disparity in fine structure. I understand why some libraries charge fines for media. At some point, it costs more to obtain a DVD than it did a book. Now, DVDs are much cheaper than books. But keeping that structure tells the public that we value our DVDs more than our books. 

The day care study followed a day care struggling with the issue of late pickup. Parents who picked their children up late were originally subjected to a minor guilt trip. The study authors called it a "social norm" - a situation where people try to do the right thing because they feel obligated to the organization. Frustrated by ongoing problems with tardy parents, the day care started charging for late pickup. Rather than stopping late pick ups, the number of parents arriving late to retrieve their children skyrocketed. The day care had put a value on the time of the workers at the center and the parents were willing to pay it. They had transformed the social contract into an economic one. The study cautions that once you've made that transition, there is no going back. The day care can no longer return to the social contract.

Libraries that charge fines for one type of item, but not another one, are trying to operate with both a social and an economic contract. A staffer at one library I spoke to said that it worked for them, but they felt that was because the DVD borrowing population and the book borrowing population didn't really overlap. Both of the libraries I spoke to used a conscience box to great effect.

The collision of social with economic norms plagues libraries in other ways, especially around technology. There are times when the social contract extends to allow for some filthy lucre to come into play. A library that loans materials freely, but requires a credit card number or a check as a deposit for a laptop or museum pass is just showing reasonable caution with an expensive item. But what about our other resources?

In the ecosystem of the public library, things we charge for or things we restrict are things we are assigning higher value to. We may not actually value these things more, but that's the message we send to our patrons. When a patron asks why they need a library card from this library to access electronic resources, the explanation is generally that databases are expensive and the companies that provide them restrict them to residents of the town that ponied up the cash. But that same logic applied to ebooks is baffling to our patrons.

I can hear you all now saying "but the tax dollars!" Yes, the tax dollars, I know. In Connecticut, this argument gets a little difficult. We have statewide reciprocal borrowing. Most libraries don't send new books or DVDs (because they're fragile, the argument goes) to other libraries, which protects the interests of their tax payers. Your average book is fair game, though. Except for libraries with ebooks. When ebooks were still novel (pardon the pun) and unusual, a subscription to NetLibrary or Overdrive was more like a database and the logic of databases made sense here. But it's starting to get creaky.

What we're telling our patrons, essentially, is that we value ebooks more than paper books. We'll send you a paper book, or let you come in and borrow them, but ebooks can't circulate to you unless your home town library buys them. Recently, Library Journal's Heather McCormack asked on Twitter if there is such a thing as ILL for ebooks. The short answer is no. We all may understand the licensing and technical restrictions, but they're an increasingly hard sell when we’re talking with the public. As one very frustrated patron asked my coworker a few weeks ago "if I can borrow books from other libraries, why can't I use their ebooks, too?" 

This is not an unreasonable question. Sadly, the answer seems to be “because libraries are totally powerless when it comes to ebooks.” The arguments we’re making to our civic leaders when they cut our funding are the same arguments we can make to the publishing industry and ebook providers. Libraries are community hubs with knowledgeable staff members who have close contact with and direct access to citizens/readers/people who buy your stuff/voters.

This is where I have to stop to make a true confession: I can’t keep up with everything ebook. It’s not really directly part of my job and I often don’t think I’m expert enough to participate in the conversation. I suspect a lot of librarians feel like I do about this – I want to advocate for libraries, but it’s not like I have a hotline to the publishing Justice League in my office. So, where to start?

I’m a longtime, if intermittent, reader of both Earlyword and Galleycat, neither of which are ebook specific, but both of which provide insight into the publishing world and mention ebooks pretty regularly. Heather McCormack tipped me off to the weekly #followreader conversation on twitter, so I asked her what she would recommend to librarians interested in joining the ebook conversation.

In addition to #followreader, she likes Digital Book World and O’Reilly’s Tools of Change. Heather also mentioned LJ events like the Day of Dialog event held at Book Expo America last month and the forthcoming LJ ebook summit. BEA’s day of dialog had a strong twitter presence and I imagine the ebook summit will as well. The barrier to entry is low and the potential benefits are huge. We don’t have to be experts, we just have to care about our patrons and get in there and start talking about what’s important to libraries.

A question, for my own benefit and the benefit of others who want to become more eBook knowledgable without investing too much time: what are your favorite ebook resources?