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There is a great discussion going on over at the Sense and Reference blog concerning three case studies dealing with library fines. If you haven’t seen it, click on over there and take a look, and if you have nothing better to do, come on back here and see my wandering pondering of these issues.

In my religious leadership roles from deep within my puzzling past, I found myself offering grace in a religious tradition that was much more concerned with rules and restrictions. In a membership class once, there was a lady who was excited about joining the faith community. She had begun attending, enjoyed the messages and the people, and wanted to belong. Then there was the portion of the manual that advised against going gambling. Being a regular customer of the riverboats, she then concluded she was not able to join.She never came back, but did send a generous check once in a while.

This part of the manual was in the same section warning us against profanity, drinking, smoking, dancing (although the language was changed to erotic type dancing when they realized in the 90’s they were excluding all Africans), violent movies, sensual stuff, etc. etc. I never enforced this stuff because it was such a laugh among those of us seminarians. Ironically, obesity was never mentioned, and the number of fat slobs at the world headquarters guaranteed that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. But I digress. So, to the aghast of a number of the faith community, I took into membership people who smoke, drank, and did whatever else I would never know about, nor care to. And as long as you had new member statistics and an increase in giving, no one from headquarters would care anyway.

I had to break the rules to build community, and over time I realized I had to break from the community itself and go my own way. Yet ironically, the public education world shares a lot of similarities. No matter what students need or common sense dictates, the rule says screw you.

The case studies in Sense and Reference show examples of patrons who owe a $10 fine. One is a lady who loves Harry Potter and wants to read the last book over the weekend, but can’t pay before closing. The second is a GED student who is desperate to get the books she needs to prepare for her test, and the last $10 she has is for gas to get to the test. The third is the same person as the second, yet is a stranger to the library whereas the second is a well-known patron.

There are some who say rules are rules and we have to be consistent with everybody. If this were followed with all three patrons, we may never see any of them again. If this is so, the reader will go somewhere else to ready Harry Potter, the second patron may not get her GED and have you to thank, and the third person may never come back. Each of these three will perhaps have a lasting negative perspective on the library, and will probably share such with their friends, which may number into the hundreds on social media.  This may also add to the fact we would never see the fine paid anyway, so it will all be for not. Then what do we do…take them to court?

Following the fine rule would be great if our job was simply enforcement. Instead, it is about providing resources for the community. Enforcing a silly fine for needy patrons ignores the bigger picture of the community we are in. My riverboat story is about a person who could have been nurtured and transformed by relationships that could have been built within the community, but such did not happen. An enforced fine could do the same thing to the library community, as it could in a public school. There are only so many opportunities we have to share community, resources, and relationships with members, students, and patrons, and if a $10 fine, gambling, or using a cell phone is such a big deal, we should ask ourselves what the hell we are doing. If we err, as we inevitably do, should we not err on the side of the patron instead of our legalistic system?

Or maybe I’m missing something here.

What are your thoughts?

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