Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Price of Freedom: On Library Fines and Resiliency

I owe money. To the mortgage company, yes, but I have another debt.

Before I share my story, let me tell you that I hate debt. I really believe that financial freedom contributes to heart freedom. I believe that the borrower is the servant of the lender. I believe in promptly paying my debts, should I incur them (which I rarely do.)

But I keep forgetting to pay this one. And it's nagging at me.

Friends, I owe 60 cents to the local public library.

I usually return my books on time, really! Our library system sends out email reminders two days before books are due, and that saves my bacon most of the time. But on this occaision, (At Home by Bill Bryson, if you must know) I just didn't get my act together, and now I'm a deadbeat debtor. If this were 1845, Charles Dickens would be penning my sordid tale of penury.

But you know what? I'm not going to be brought down by this. Later on today, I'm going to put on my big girl knickers, scrape together two quarters and a dime and get myself back in the black. I will not be undone by a sixty cent library fine!

Apparently, the same could not have been said for Harvard University students. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Harvard library system will no longer levy fines for overdue books. The fifty-cent-per-day fee was just too much for these bright young things. Not financially too much, but emotionally.

Steven Beardsley, the associate director for access services administrative operations and special projects (say THAT ten times fast) said the goal of the new policy was to "improve the student experience and embrace a 'One Harvard' approach for borrowing material across Harvard Library."

Ummm.... how is eliminating the accountability of an overdue book fine going to accomplish this? Won't students just hang on to books indefinitely, thus depriving their fellow students the opportunity to  access to this material? I'm trying to figure out how Mr. Director of Access Services, etc. etc. thinks this is going to help with access...

The real corker, however, comes next. Mr. Beardsley adds, "We have witnessed firsthand the stress that overdue fines can cause for students."

NO. You didn't just say that. People, seriously, this is an elite university. Getting into Harvard is notoriously difficult, especially these days. Harvard students do crazy things, like invent Facebook. They can't handle the stress of overdue library fines?!?

A lot of people are using this as another platform to complain about millennials, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to weep for them.

As we all know, life can be hard. Even in the age of flushing toilets, antibiotics and Netflix. Hard things happen. I'm not even talking about wars or natural disasters, I'm talking about normal hard things, like losing a job or a loved one. Financial reversals (greater than sixty cents), sick children, a neighbor's tree falling on your house, infertility, divorce... these are all normal hard things. ALL OF US will have to deal with some combination of these things at points in our lives. If people can't handle library fines, how are they going to handle life?

So in my quest to always be practical and helpful, here are a few suggestions to this conundrum:

Return your books on time. I hate to point out the obvious, but the stress of fines can be avoided this way. Note due dates on your calendar and/or set an alarm on your phone. If your library offers alerts as mine does, sign up for them. (Without those alerts, I'd probably owe $7,000, for real.)

If you screw up and forget to return your books, just PAY THE FINE. It's ok! Once you pay the fine, it will all be fine. (Maybe that's why it's called a fine? I don't know. It's a theory.)

But PLEASE--in our zeal to make life comfortable and friendly, let us not eradicate a perfectly reasonable measure of accountability. We are not helping young adults when we pretend that there are not consequences for their actions. Your student loan servicer is not going to be so tender with your feelings, nor will your credit card company, mortgage lender or your future spouse. We don't help them when we basically say your inability to return your books on time does not have real repercussions on other people. Get over yourself, think of others. They might want (or in the case of students, NEED) to read that book. Return it.

So, my friends, with that I can tell you that Bill Bryson's fascinating book At Home has been safely returned to the Minuteman Library System and is available for your reading pleasure. And thanks to my temporary amnesia, the system is sixty cents richer.

Everyone wins!