Law School is expensive, this is understood. Therefore, when you as a law student receive notice or learn you have a fine to pay from the Law Library it feels like one more dig at your already limited resources. I have had students shout at me, (yes they shouted) that they pay too much already so why should they have to pay a fine for a late book? The conversation becomes very tense when the student is looking at replacement costs of a lost Law Library item. I know the student is thinking that because they already are paying tuition and trying to pay for gas, rent, food, etc., that a fine for something that they feel should be covered by their tuition fees just appears unjust. Then there are the other students that understand that they have a professional responsibility to their fellow law students to return items on time and pay the cost if they are late.
Fines for late library materials is not a new concept. Public libraries could probably solve some of their budgetary short falls if they charged more robust fines and had a means to aggressively collect those fees. Sadly they do not, and there is not a public will to pursue such a policy. Much of this comes down to the fact that a core element of librarian philosophy is providing access to the library patron. Fines by their very nature run somewhat counter to that axiom. The knowledge that one might have to pay a fine could inhibit someone from making use of a library. Libraries and librarianship is about providing information and making it easy to access information.
The reality is that books, DVDs, online databases, and the plethora of other materials that libraries have in their collections are expensive both to purchase and maintain. Libraries are facing considerable challenges and costs trying to keep up with the constant changes in digital formats, and operation systems. However, the access to information is a benefit that cannot be reflected in simple dollars and cents.
How does this relates to the issue of fines? As stated, it is expensive to maintain the collection of a library. A specialty collection such as a law library is particularly difficult to afford. Treatise must be regularly updated to stay current with changes in the law, as do physical annotated statutory materials, and reporters have to be licensed in order to continue to receive the annual volumes. Yet the main service that law students frequently make use of are the Course Reserve materials and legal study aids. These materials circulate more than any others in the Law Library collection and are the materials required and recommended by the law professors for the students to use. As any law student knows, a single law text book can run anywhere from $80 to over $150 per book. Some classes require multiple text books plus supplements. As the Charlotte School of Law Library was being created, a careful and considered decision was made to provide copies of these materials for students to borrow. Part of the consideration was that law students should purchase their own books; however, it was understood that because of costs many students could not or would not purchase these materials. It was determined after investigating the practices of similar academic law libraries that the Course Reserves would circulate for three hours before they would have to be returned. Initially, all of this was based upon the honor system and professional conduct. Fines were not part of borrowing policy.
Sadly, in practice there were individuals that felt they were entitled to keep Course Reserve materials as long as they liked, thus denying their fellow students “access” to those materials. Regardless of censure or other methods of reprimand there remained a persistent problem in getting Course Reserves returned in a timely manner. A decision was made to institute fines across the board, and to make the fines hefty enough in order to dissuade the behavior that had become endemic. A policy was also put in place that unpaid fines would prevent a student from being able to register for classes or graduate until the fines were paid. The result has been a significant decrease in Course Reserves being taken for days instead of hours and an effective way to the get the attention of those who violate the policy.
While to some this might seem harsh, it is important to remember that foremost in the minds of the Law Library staff is the success of our students. Our goal is to provide access to the materials and information a student needs. A polite and professional e-mail to me to arrange an appointment to discuss whether or not one owes a fine is an important first step toward a solution. I should also note that the money collected for Law Library fines do not go toward the Law Library budget. Instead, the funds go into the general budget of the Law School.