September 26, 2007 at 10:22 pm 9 comments

I just logged in to check my Comcast account and the following headline was in the top five:

“Dead? You still have to pay library fine!”

What started as a story in the local paper has been now picked up by the AP and is out on the wires. The AP version is brief and it was not until I found the detailed local one that I got truly disheartened, especially when I read this:

When she returned the book last week, Schaper said, “I explained that my mother had died suddenly and that I was returning a book she had checked out.”

Schaper said she was stunned when the man behind the library counter informed her of the 50-cent late fee.

Schaper said the man, whose name she doesn’t know, “showed no compassion or understanding at all.”

“He didn’t say he was sorry and didn’t offer to waive the fine,” she said. “He did say he would cancel my mother’s library card. He seemed to have ce in his veins, and he had the demeanor of a robot.”

In the end, Schaper said, “I gave him two quarters and left in total isbelief.”

Honestly, is this kind of bad PR worth the 50 cents? And it is no longer just bad PR for that one library now that it has been picked up by AP and is flahsing as a headline for everyone in my region of NJ who is logging on to their Comcast account tonight.


Entry filed under: Customer Experience. Tags: .

Too busy… (Pick up a phone!) ‘Predatory Reference’ an Interview with Bill Pardue about ‘Slam the Boards.’ Second Slam Coming Up on October 10, 2007!


  • 1. Leo Klein  |  September 26, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    The IRS isn’t going to spare someone because he or she is pushing up daisies, so why should a library?

    Everyone has to pay their bills.

  • 2. Peter Bromberg  |  September 27, 2007 at 7:35 am


    Of course the answer is no, this kind of publicity is not worth the 50 cents. I’m a strong believer that libraries should eliminate fines completely. Fort Vancouver has a
    nice model
    : “The Board of Trustees is responsible for ensuring the prudent use of the taxpayers’ investment. Fort Vancouver Regional Library District has a great deal of trust in its borrowers. Our fine-free system is an expression of that faith.”

    Regarding Leo Klein’s comment: It sounds like he greatly values the idea of personal responsibility, and I’m in full agreement that it is a very important value. Without it, organizations and societies fall apart.

    But, as in most cases, there are competing values at play. Other values include empathy, compassion and understanding. Any of these values taken too far will become problematic. Compassion taken too far becomes enabling. Empathy taken too far becomes self-denial and leads to a lack of self-awareness and self-respect. Personal responsibility taken too far results in inflexibility and heartlessness.

    In this case I think the library employee took the value of personal responsibility too far, and did not balance it with a little bit of understanding that in this specific case what was needed was not the enforcement of the rule, but a bit of empathy and judgment; judgment that in light of the death of the customer’s mother, and the likely emotional state of the person standing before him, the fine should be waived.

    Also, given the IRS’s place in the hearts of the people, I don’t think “The IRS does it so we should too” is a very persuasive argument. 🙂

  • 3. royce  |  September 27, 2007 at 7:46 am

    Common sense says……..Bad Idea.

  • 4. K.G. Schneider  |  September 27, 2007 at 7:52 am

    I’m hoping/thinking that Leo was just trying to be funny (emulating the IRS point of view).

    In a similar situation in an FPOW, where a family suddenly lost a toddler due to one of life’s unexpected tragedies, the staff did just the opposite. They waived the fine and even got a little teary, and then the boss discussed it at our all-library staff meeting and everyone got teary, and all in all it was a good thing.

    The reason it was different in our scenario is that the boss of bosses got a few things right. First, the right people were hired. The circ desk may be the only staff our patrons interact with; these employees need to be selected carefully, mentored, and treated as the full professionals they are. Second, policies and procedures were clear and well-disseminated. Third, staff were empowered to bend policies and procedures as they saw fit. It was both written and unwritten policy that the library was about *service.*

    Apparently there is at least one library left that hasn’t got the message that we have competition and that except for the poorest of the poor–who are not the ones making decisions about city funding–service is *our product.*

  • 5. Anonymous  |  September 27, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    I AGREE completely that staff should be empowered to bend policies and procedures as they see fit. It is also our policy that the library was about *service*. A little understanding can go a LONG way. As someone who had both parents pass within a 2 day period, I can say that, the following months were taxing at best. The librarian in question should try to put himself in his patron’s position. I myself would have been hard pressed to even find and return the item in question.
    Dan Will
    Meigs Co. Dist. Public Library
    Pomeroy, Ohio

  • 6. Leo Klein  |  September 27, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    OK, I was being too much of a meanie but settling up accounts just seems like the normal thing to do.

    I mean, if you’re going to leave somebody with a bill it might as well be in the millions (okay, now I’m definitely joking).

  • 7. Cynthia  |  September 28, 2007 at 10:54 am

    This is an extreme example of something I see all too often. As a library student, I spend a huge number of hours in several different libraries (ok, I am also just a library geek). With the exception of only two, I constantly see some level of mean/rude treatment of patrons (for some reason, academic libraries are hands down the worst). It is not generally the circ-staff–it is librarians. I don’t get it. I want these jobs (any of them…please!) and can not imagine treating a patron that way. I worry–will I some day become that person? Then I remind myself–even the library staff can be having a bad day. So, maybe that was the case here. Plus, that same woman will not think twice about paying the last phone, gas, electric, or cable bill–it is called settling the estate. In the end, I think this does seem cruel for the level of the bill (I would have paid it myself had I been the staff if I was NOT allowed to waive it).

  • 8. Marie L. Radford  |  September 28, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    This tale, as extreme as it is, exemplifies some very rigid thinking and behaviors that still persist in some libraries. Sometimes policies become rules that are set in stone.

    Front line staff who work in difficult environments at circulation desks often become fearful of bending rules. Sometimes they think it is their job to enforce rules no matter what. Other times they fear reprisals from supervisors (or other staff) if they make exceptions.

    They feel caught between a rock and a hard place unless they have been properly trained, encouraged to be flexible and to use their own judgment in making exceptions, and

    This example is truly tragic for the particular library user, for that library, but also for all library reputations. Perhaps some good can come of it if supervisors use this example to open a dialog with their staff about when to make exceptions to policies and when to waive fines.

    I agree with Pete that library fines are dreadful in terms of public relations and also for those who strive for service excellence. Several years ago when I was a high school librarian I abolished fines and just suspended borrowing priviledges for those who had overdues. It seemed to work very well, at least in the HS environment.

  • 9. Anonymous  |  October 7, 2007 at 9:22 am

    I am a patron (and librarian by training) of Harrison Public Library. The reference staff provides personalized customer service while the circulation desk do not have a modicum of it. It is unfortunate. The circulation desk staff need some customer service training and to understand that they represent the library too.

    I was very surprised that the Director did not address the negative press.

    This negative PR underminds us all.

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