Many college libraries charge a HUGE fixed fine ($500 at my college) per lost library book. If you don’t pay, they’ll hold your degree and transcript hostage. So what’s a poor college student to do? Negotiate your way out of this nightmare!
In college, I worked at the library for about 3 years. During that time I was exposed to all the inner workings of the library. They actually do have valid reasons why the lost book fine is so high:
1. They have to re-purchase the book. Often, it’s not as simple as going down to Borders. These books have to withstand heavy usage, so they often purchase a library edition. This edition has a thicker hard cover and a sturdier binding. These editions can be quite expensive. If the book is old, it may be out of print. This adds cost (if the library can get it at all).
2. They have to log the new book into the collection. They have to pay an acquisitions employee to enter the book’s information into the database and remove the old book’s information from the database. If the publication date or company has changed, they have to update the card catalogue as well.
3. They have to add security devices to the book. This can include the magnetic tags like they put on drugstore items or a magnetic strip buried in the spine. The library has to purchase the supplies then pay someone to add them to the new book.
4. They have to add tracking information to the book. Often, the date of acquisition or other information will be hand written in the book. The check-out card and envelope must be added to the cover. The Dewey Decimal (or equivalent number) must be added to the spine of the book.
5. A durable plastic cover may be added over the book jacket.
All these supplies and staff time adds up. The book fine must cover all the expenses, not just the cost of the book. So simply arguing over the fine isn’t going to get you anywhere. But, armed with this knowledge and empathy, you can negotiate your way out.
First, determine who can help you. Skip the check-in chick at the desk and ask for the reference librarian. She is typically the senior staff member on the floor and can pull some strings for you. If she can’t help you, ask for the acquisitions department. The staff there may take pity on you, and since they are the ones who do most of the tasks listed above, they have some leverage with your fine. If you can’t get anywhere, start at the beginning again. See if an alternate staff member is available at a different time.
Second, find out what’s at stake. Ask if they can tell you whether the book was a soft cover, hardcover, or special library edition. Find out when it was published, and if it’s still in print. Ask if it had any special value, like if it was signed by the author or donated by a prominent donor.
Third, make an offer. If the book is still available, ask if you could purchase the book and donate it rather than pay the fine. If it’s out-of-print, offer to do the legwork and obtain a copy from a used book dealer. Offer to do some of the tasks associated with adding the new book to the collection. You could offer to volunteer to spend an afternoon adding security device to all their new books, for example.
If all else fails, you could always try to negotiate from the inside. During finals week, the libraries are often understaffed for two reasons: 1) They stay open late to allow students to study for exams, and need to staff the front desk. 2) Everyone returns their library books at the same time when their class is over. These books need to be shelved. The library often offers temporary work during finals week. Apply for a temporary position. After working there for a few days, introduce yourself to the reference librarian and explain your problem. Ask for her help. Since you work there, she may view you as an ally instead of a nameless book thief.
If nothing works, resign yourself to paying the fine and try not to lose any more books.
What NOT to do:
1. Don’t just purchase a replacement and throw it in the book return. Since it is obviously not a library book, it won’t get shelved and you won’t get credited for its return.
2. Don’t ignore the fine. They may tack on late payment fees or bar you from graduation. It’s not worth it.