Bring an end to library fines

Rebuild the social contract with residents, by ending library fines.

Photo_on_01-05-2013_at_09.31 Submitted by Ben Unsworth
Shift Surrey Challenge - Turning ideas into action
How can we make Surrey an even better place to live?

Making big changes to public services in Surrey will rely on building a new relationship between the citizen and the state. This project will help us test how we can remove uneccessary financial contracts between the council and residents, replacing them with social contracts that are built on honesty and a shared set of social norms.

Research by behavioural economists suggests that having a system of fines creates a financial contract between the parties. The question in the 'customer's' mind subconsciously shifts from 'should I do...' to 'what's the economic cost to me of...' - which means that rather than be guided by a set of shared values and social norms, decisions are taken based on affordability and cost. With the late book this means someone thinks less about who they're inconveniencing and more about whether they're willing to take the fine. I think the research suggests there could be lots of things that would benefit from the removal of fines and penalties, but we should test it first.

I propose we build an experimental research design based around a few of Surrey's libraries. Using a control group to test the effectiveness, we could introduce variations of the 'fines and penalty free' libraries - each with different communication and social-norm based messaging - and see what the impact is on late returns.

Ending library fines won't make huge savings for the council, but it might point the way in how we could transform the relationship with residents and build social capital to help tackle bigger issues in the future.

  • Amy Tomlins
    15 May at 09:16

    Is there something about this that could be linked to Louise's nectar points idea - so we're not punishing people if they return books late, but we reward them if they return them on time?
    (linked to nudge theory?)

    To me this also links into 'Trust' as one of our organisational values - if we're treating each other internally with trust etc we should be treating our residents in the same way.

  • Andy Spragg
    15 May at 10:21

    I think the principle is a good one, but there is a question around how it is taken alongside the potential of library closures or the reduction in services. It could perhaps be better implemented alongside a range of initiatives that increased user engagement with libraries, building a library stock and service more reflective of the community it serves.

  • Ben Unsworth
    16 May at 09:19

    I can't imagine people (residents) reacting badly to the removal of fines, but take the point that any change can have unanticpated reactions. An experimental design could definitely work in your idea Andy, one library = no change, one library = just the change, one library = change with lots of extra activity. Then we can test if there was an effect and if there was a difference according to engagement etc..
    Also, Amy... totally agree, would be great to test a more postive reward system too.

  • Louise Footner
    21 May at 14:49

    I like the idea of turning some of these things on their head and rewarding rather than punishing - maybe we could bring adult learning into libraries and you earn points if you sign up for a course and take a book out - you get the idea.

  • Stuart Mitchenall
    22 May at 12:04

    agree with keeping it simple; bringing in library closures enlarges the debate. Using points to encourage rather than fines to penalise the way to go; I've always thought it was odd to penalise those that brought books back.; Never heard of the library service fining someone for not returning books, so its cheaper to keep them...(haven't borrowed one in years, though. Why?

  • Alice Gould
    22 May at 14:28

    Stuart libraries do fine people who do not return books. You have to pay the cost of the book for replacement. I do not think thank not charging people for late returns will achieve anything other than less income for the already financially struggling library service. It would also not be possible to trial it in just one library as the whole of the Surrey library service is one library. So for example you can take a book out at one branch and return it to any other in Surrey so would be difficult to implement a different fine structure for different libraries.

  • Ben Unsworth
    23 May at 13:10

    I appreciate that fines are a source of income for libraries. The point is to test whether they really achieve what they say they set out to do... get people to return things on time. The hypothesis is that treating people in a different way, building contracts based on social norms (rather than financial agreements) could have the desired effect.

    I am sure it would be possible to design a trial, even if Surrey library service is one library. The test 'treatment' would be based on the library that you get the book from - it does not matter where it's returned, we would just measure if it is returned on time.

  • Janet Thomes
    18 Jun at 09:09

    Interesting idea Ben. The library service has put in several mechanisms to encourage people to return books - renewals online, returning to any library, renewal via 24 hour phone line, extending the number of renewals (in theory you could have a book out for 45 weeks). Love the thought of trying to recapture the social conscience element ("it's inconveniencing someone else if I don't return the book"). I'm not sure that I'm in favour of a "reward" philosophy as that just replacing one financial incentive with another so I'm not quite clear on how you are suggesting that "nudge" effect could be achieved to tap into that social awareness. Raising income is a huge area for libraries in times of financial constraint. Which sort of areas do you feel libraries could bring in to increase their income?