College libraries have eliminated fines for overdue technological equipment, a policy that became effective on Feb. 20. Any fines accrued by students since July 2016, even if already paid, will be credited to student accounts. Librarians, in conjunction with the Dean’s Office, implemented this policy, according to Helena Warburg, head of Schow Science Library and interim head of access services, because students were burdened with excessive fines, despite the fact that they were not actually ensuring the return of technological equipment. Fines will remain in place for any kind of lost or damaged materials, as well as for over- due course-reserve books.
Problems arose after the libraries implemented a new catalog in July, according to Warburg. The previous system required items such as laptops and chargers to be returned by library closing time on the same day or at opening the next day if checked out within four hours of closing time. Both situations included a one-hour grace period. With the new system, items were due exactly 24 hours after being checked out, plus the grace period, without any email overdue notices. This new timing led to many more students returning materials late and accruing large fines, often without understanding the penalties, Warburg said. For example, one student accrued a fine of roughly $1400 for returning a laptop late 23 times. Of the hundreds of students affected by the fines, 33 students owed fines over $200 and 138 owed $50 or more.
“[Students] wouldn’t know if a laptop was overdue, and it’s exactly 24 hours from the time you took it out,” Warburg said. “So if they were at a swim meet, or if they were in class, or if they fell asleep … People didn’t realize they were getting fined.”
Once the deans realized in the fall that students had incurred such high fines, they started working on improving the library policy on over- due materials, according to Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom. “I was worried about the stress that high fines might be placing on students who already felt the pressure of not having ac- cess to their own electronic equipment (or not being in the position to be able to re- pair equipment that was no longer working properly),” Sandstrom said. “A group of us got together to brainstorm alternative solutions to the lending policy, and I am very pleased with the result.”
Laptop fines were $10 per hour for the first 10 hours overdue, for a $100 maximum each time, or $5 per hour for the first 10 hours for non-laptop equipment such as chargers or calculators. Each laptop bore stickers alerting students to this fine structure. Occasionally, students would take advantage of this policy to hold a laptop for an extended period after reaching the maximum.
“That’s a really important piece of this,” Warburg said. “That was very disturbing to the librarians because we have a limited amount of equipment and when somebody finds a loophole, they’re obstructing their peers from having access to that [resource].”
In lieu of holding library equipment past its due date, students can borrow laptops for an extended time, usually of up to two weeks, but that policy is not publicized well among students, Warburg said. Usually, students find out about the loans via a referral from the Dean’s Office. The librarians are currently working with Office of Informational Technology to double the size of the long-term laptop pool by next fall, Warburg said. The libraries currently lend out 20 laptops in the extended loan program.
Expanding and publicizing the long-term laptop loan program could help alleviate problems with overdue
library equipment. “But we were very concerned about the money that [students] had already accrued [in fines],” Warburg said. “What we determined was [that] we’re charging these onerousness and we’re still not getting the materials back in a timely fashion, so we wanted to think of a better way to do this.”
Warburg, Sandstrom and Head of Library Systems Walter Komorowski first met in December “because one of the deans said a student was concerned about the amount of money they had racked up in fines,” Warburg said. “We can be subjective [about fines] if the Dean’s Office tells us to be.
But if we’re going to be subjective about it, then we really need to think about it because it would be better if we had a policy that was inclusive for everyone.” Warburg then met with Sandstrom, Provost David Love, Director of Financial Aid Paul Boyer ’77 and Director of Libraries David Pilachowski in January, but the first few proposed ideas were not able to be implemented with the capabilities of the library’s system. Proposed solutions included implementing an individual cap on total fines or temporarily blocking the library accounts of students with overdue equipment.
Eventually, the librarians and deans settled on eliminating nes entirely for overdue equipment. Now, every morning, librarians will email each student who has overdue equipment, and students will get a second notice after that. At the third email notice for
a late item, sent within a week of the due date, students will be charged a $10 penalty and referred to the Dean’s Office, War- burg said. Also, if an item is not returned for 14 days, it gets automatically marked as “lost” and the student is noticed, Warburg said. “After you get that ‘lost’ notice, it’s really imperative to return that item,” she added. In that case, the student is blocked from checking out the same item until the block is removed from the record, which requires charging the student for the item. Also, librarians will periodically go through the accounts to remove lost items from the record, charging student accounts. Charges for lost items cannot be reimbursed.
The success of this new policy requires communication between librarians and students, Sandstrom said.
“The librarians will be providing students with much more detailed information about the lending policy up- front and will help steer students to more long-term borrowing options if it seems that they might need equipment for longer than the short-term policy allows,” Sandstrom said. “In lieu of continually increasing fines, librarians will do more outreach with students to ensure that equipment is returned on time.”
Students must also buy in to the policy for it to succeed, Sandstrom said.
“This new policy will be a lot more user-friendly for students,” she said. “At the same time, it relies on student cooperation. We must be able to count on students to return equipment when it is due so that the library can continue to offer equipment to other students who need it. I am con dent that students will step up to this responsibility.”
The new policy could be revisited over the summer, depending on how successful it is in ensuring students’ equitable access to library materials. “This is a pilot program,” Warburg said. “If the materials are not being returned when they’re supposed to, we’re going to review this whole thing
over the summer,” after the libraries have hired a new director of libraries and a new head of access services.
For now, Warburg is going back into the library system to manually credit the accounts of all students who have accrued any fines on overdue equipment since July, as well as credit a $2 processing fee that the system had
automatically been charging on overdue books. She is working to credit students as quickly as possible, beginning with those who owed the most. After all the credits are sent to the Bursar’s Office, appearing on students’ term bills, Warburg will send a personalized email to each affected student, explaining the reason for and amount of their individual credit. “[It] will prob- ably be about 500 individual emails,” Warburg said. “I will get it done before finals. My goal is, before they graduate, they will know what their credit was.”