How long will I have a library record?
March 15, 2010 8:47 AM   Subscribe

How long do libraries keep fines "on the books"?

I've been an avid library user since I was young, and occasionally rack up some fines- nothing major, just a few dollars here and there. Back in 1996 or so, my family moved from VA to FL. I'm pretty sure I had some unpaid fines at my local library (Fairfax County system) when we moved away. I've always wondered if they're still out there somewhere- if I called, would they be able to see them? Could I pay them? How long do libraries generally keep fines on the books before writing them off- or do they ever?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is dependent on the system. Fines stay in the system as long as the system stays up usually, or if they've been written off which no library I know of does. That said, with a lot of libraries, they've had some sort of clean slate event like a system crash that either wipes out the fines or messes them up enough so they're not worth retrieving.

I used to do outreach for a medium sized public library in Vermont and one of the things I did was tried to get more high school kids in to use the library. One of the big things keeping kids and young adults out of the library was their fear that they owed us money and we'd give them a hard time. I got to tell them that actually since we'd had a big system crash we had no idea what they owed us and hey welcome back.
posted by jessamyn at 8:59 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I imagine it varies from library to library, but at every one I've ever worked at, fines stayed on the books forever.
posted by box at 9:00 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seinfeld says 20 years, at least, but my guess is it varies from library to library.

Even if you have no fines on record, a donation is always appreciated. Here's the Fairfax Library System's general donor page and Amazon Wish List.
posted by sallybrown at 9:00 AM on March 15, 2010

(As a practical matter, though, I often waive small fines that people racked up when they were children. I'd rather have a regular library user than twenty cents, y'know?)
posted by box at 9:01 AM on March 15, 2010

Brooklyn Public Library keeps them at least 10 years.
posted by griphus at 9:02 AM on March 15, 2010

Anecdotally, I ended up going to college in near a town where I had lived until I was 6 (1994). So 12 or 13 years later I went to check out the local library and signed up for a library card. I was told that I didn't need to sign up for a new library card as I was already in the system and also that I owed $5.
posted by JauntyFedora at 9:03 AM on March 15, 2010

It varies by system.

W. C. Library occasionally purged the database of any cards that hadn't been used in 3 years.
B. Library switched to a different type of library card and used the opportunity to make everyone register for a new card (there were a lot of fraudulent cards and duplicates on the books). Any card that wasn't re-registered after 1 year was canceled. That's a special circumstance, but they also set library cards to expire after several years.

I would be very surprised if a fine stayed on the books for 14 years -- the card most likely would have expired and been purged from the database.

That said, a fine can stay on the books for decades if the card remains in use.
posted by Jeanne at 9:03 AM on March 15, 2010

Former (university) library minion here. We had a policy of waiving small fines at graduation, or after 5 years, but bigger ones stayed on the books as long as the patrons did, even when we'd given up on actively pursuing them. Overdue books would always stay on the record, too, even after we'd given the book up as lost and bought a replacement. (Books often did return many years after their due date, too. People fear the library police.)

If it's only a small fine from all those years ago, and it was me at the desk when you called, I'd probably have waived it. Sallybrown's idea of a donation in place of the fine is nice, though, especially if the library served you well in the past.
posted by Catseye at 9:05 AM on March 15, 2010

When I was young I definitely remember racking up fines that got large enough that they exceeded the cost of the book. If I remember correctly the library asked for the cost of the book rather than a nickel a day for all of eternity.

Now I am a graduate student and I use my university's library, from which I am allowed to keep out books for essentially forever. (Technically it's six months at a time, but with unlimited renewals; there are books I've had for at least two years.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:10 AM on March 15, 2010

My father checked out a book that was due in 1986 and subsequently forgot about it under a chair or table or whatever, he insisted he took it back and it was lost in the system. fast forward a year and he found it, and he's never taken it back for fear of the fine. (Rediculous, I know.)

So anyway, the book is now 24 years overdue.
posted by TomMelee at 9:13 AM on March 15, 2010

I actually live in Fairfax County. I was pretty sure (in a disorganized way) that I owed some fines when I lost my library card many-many years ago (possibly circa 1995). When I got a new library card (just said I lost my old one, which is true) in approximately 2000, they didn't want any money. Maybe I misremembered having fines? Maybe they had some kind of horrible data loss? No one knows.

Anyway, if you still have your library card you can just log on to the FCPL website and it will show you if you have any fines, how much, etc.
posted by anaelith at 9:20 AM on March 15, 2010

Just anecdotally, I have heard given the economy that some libraries are actually putting unpaid fines to collections. A quick google search shows that Arlington County, VA outsources to collections for any fine over $25.

I graduated college and was pretty sure I owed my college town public library some money, so I called them up to ask. They said I did owe them money, but they were willing to cut it in half since I had been proactive about asking about it. I paid the full amount though, it was like $50 (I had borrowed - and lost - a book on CD).
posted by CharlieSue at 9:24 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

My university charged unpaid fines to your account upon graduation. You would not receive your diploma until the bill was paid.

I have also heard of libraries sending fines to collections (this is one reason to check your credit report every year!).

Since that doesn't really seem to be the case for you and you're willing to pay whatever you might owe, why not just call them up?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:38 AM on March 15, 2010

I had lost a book I took out as a kid 25+ years ago. About a decade ago I tried to get a library card a few towns over and they still had record of it. After years and years of procrastinating, I finally sucked it up and was ready to go pay for the book a few months ago... and they had no record of it.

So, echoing everyone else here, it seems to depend on the library and how often they purge their records. Apparently mine is on a quarter-century schedule.
posted by Aznable at 9:45 AM on March 15, 2010

Now y'all have made me curious: Do some libraries charge interest on their fines?
posted by Ys at 9:46 AM on March 15, 2010

D.C. Public Library System used to send overdue fines to debt collectors; maybe they still do.
posted by jgirl at 10:00 AM on March 15, 2010

libraries giving fines to collections? yikes! that sort of begs the question if the statute of limitation doesn't apply.
posted by mirileh at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2010

D.C. Public Library System used to send overdue fines to debt collectors; maybe they still do.

The San Mateo County (CA) library system does this. They send a few threat letters first. or so I've heard.
posted by padraigin at 10:08 AM on March 15, 2010

Queens Borough Public Library keeps them for at least 15 years.
posted by zarq at 10:11 AM on March 15, 2010

Now y'all have made me curious: Do some libraries charge interest on their fines?

Mine does not. They charge by the day, and I believe that has an upper cap.

They do have a "Read Down Your Fees" program which I think is pretty cool. If you're underage, you can earn "library bucks" to eliminate late fees by spending time in the library reading books. Half an Hour of reading time = $1 Library Buck.
posted by zarq at 10:16 AM on March 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

'Read Down Your Fees' FAQ :)
posted by zarq at 10:17 AM on March 15, 2010

Just anecdotally, I have heard given the economy that some libraries are actually putting unpaid fines to collections.

That happened to my friend's husband. When they were in the process of buying a house, her husband discovered that his credit report included a library fine from his college years that had gone to a collection agency. It wasn't an exorbitatnt amount, but he had to pay it in order for them to get their mortgage financing approved. He thought it was pretty bizarre.
posted by amyms at 10:18 AM on March 15, 2010

My public library in Canada sometimes has fines from about five years ago. All older fines were deleted when we changed systems. If I have someone in front of me and a "block" comes up with fines I look to see how old they are, what they were for and what amount. Often I waive older, neglible fines without even mentioning it. Any overdue fine a couple years old and a substantial amount I will let the member know and as part of welcoming them back will let them know I waived their overdue fines. Fines for a lost book are something else though - I emphasize we would like the item back. Often I waive recent fines if it is obvious library fines would be a financial hardship. We do send accounts over $40 to recovery (collections) because those are lost books we want back. We make deals on fines all the time (pay half now and I will waive the rest etc). We charge no interest and a maximum of $6 per item for overdue fees.

Fines are a shameful topic for some people, especially when staff use it as an instrument of power.
posted by saucysault at 10:20 AM on March 15, 2010

Forget to mention that our local library has "Amnesty Days" where you can bring back any book, no matter how long overdue, without fear of fines.
posted by amyms at 10:21 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since I bet I'm not the only librarian reading this thread for ideas, I've worked at several places that did 'Food for Fines'-type programs (usually a week during or right before the holiday season), where folks could get a break on their fines by bringing in food items to be donated to charity.
posted by box at 10:46 AM on March 15, 2010

A long time ago used to be that disk space was at a premium, so all sorts of minor stuff would get purged out of library online systems on a regular basis, but that has not really been true for the last 20 years or so. Storage being what it is now, there is no no reason to purge anything because of simple space concerns, plus the purges take staff time and attention and there are usually better things to do with that.

Most online systems will keep data indefinitely, and refuse to delete borrower records or item records if there are attached unpaid fines etc. Because item records for withdrawn books can cause undesirable side effects on some systems, small fines are sometimes cleared just to be able to delete the item record. Similarly old, expired patron records can cause issues and are sometimes purged even when they have small fines attached. But again, because doing so takes time and storage is so cheap, this kind of cleanup happens less frequently than it used to.

When libraries buy new automation systems the data gets migrated between them; fine records can almost always be preserved, but there are sometimes minor inconsistencies in the way that the systems store information so it is often taken as a good excuse to purge older small fines. These migrations between systems happen infrequently and at unpredictable intervals, so there's no real way to guess how long it may be between such purges.

All the above is for outstanding fines for materials that you returned -- if you kept the book then the chances are that it will remain on your record longer, possibly for ever. This is doubly true if the library ever reported the fine/lost item to a collection agency who will also keep records of the amount owed.

As for books you never returned, and are worried that you owe 25 years of fines on... policies vary by library, but usually there are maximum fines. If you take it back you will most often be charged the, say $10, maximum, but not the 25 cents x 365 x 25 years ($2281.25)! If the missing item was reported to a collection agency there may be an extra fee, but it will still not be some vast sum.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:47 AM on March 15, 2010

When I was in high school the library said I lost a magazine. I'm sure I returned it, but they wanted $70 to replace it. I went back to the library 10 years later and tried to get a library card (after the city amalgamated and 6 library systems merged into one) and they told me I already had an account and I owed $70.

I was actually planning on going in this week, almost 20 years later, and sucking it up and paying it, but it turns out there's no point.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:51 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

According to the Fairfax County Library website, "The library accounts of customers who owe more than $15 or who have owed any amount for more than one year will be blocked; customers will not be able to place holds, check items out, renew items or use the public computers."
posted by blucevalo at 11:05 AM on March 15, 2010

FWIW, my local library service has a maximum fine of £20.

This reminds me of the story of when the Berlin Wall came down, someone from East Berlin finally took his books back to a library in West Berlin. They let him off the fine - exceptional circumstances and all that...
posted by idiomatika at 11:06 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

i'm horrible when it comes to books, routinely racked up fines from a multitude of libraries. it finally came to a head when i got a job working at a library. despite having access to their fines in the computer system, i left owing about $100 in fines, as well as a large amount of material that i had returned, but neglected to check them back in.

i last checked out a book in 1987. two years ago, in an effort to get a meeting room, i attempted to get a new card. i got a stern look from the librarian and told to contact my former employer. it seems the multi library computer system does remember.
posted by lester at 12:05 PM on March 15, 2010

My husband and I returned to visit his childhood home in East Meadow, NY a couple of years ago and we stopped by the library to see if he could pay a very long overdue fine. Turns out it wasn't on the files (probably about 25 years old), but we left a check just so it was no longer on his conscience. Such a good boy!
posted by Sophie1 at 12:53 PM on March 15, 2010

Ten years ago I had a lot of overdue library books and about £50 in fines. I returned the books then but the assistant I saw wasn't sure exactly how much the fines would be, and said the library would write and let me know. They never did, and I didn't use the library in the intervening years. I wrote twice to the library without getting an answer. Recently a friend bullied me into enquiring about my borrower record when we were at a library event. Turns out they deleted all borrower data before some time period so there were no fines on my record and no information about what anyone had borrowed before that time.

Anecdotal, then, but some libraries evidently do delete borrower data.
posted by paduasoy at 1:21 PM on March 15, 2010

Eh, just call. Your guilt (of 14 years!) will be alleviated if you just call and ask. They won't scold you.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:00 PM on March 15, 2010

Our library stops fines at the cost of the book - so shitty romance novels? Top out around $5 which is pretty easy to get to. Fines stay on as long as the system exists as well and have gone from system to system and upgrade to upgrade. I generally waive it for small amounts or items that aren't on the catalogue. If you lost it though? I'll chat with you about it. Same with damaged fines.
posted by geek anachronism at 10:13 PM on March 15, 2010

Many small library systems are likely to switch catalog programs every so often. We have switched our catalog twice in the last ten years and didn't carry over inactive cards either time. So, any fines were gone with them. If you call your old library, they should be able to tell you very quickly if you have any fines and how to take care of them.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:59 PM on March 15, 2010

Heres the fines and Fees for the King County Library System in Washington State...

Fines, Fees
Most Books, Records, Video Cassettes, DVDs,
Audio Cassettes, Magazines, Compact Discs 10¢ per open day (maximum fine per item
per loan period $3.00)

Check-out of materials is denied when fines and charges exceed $10.00. If accounts reach $25 or more, they are assigned to a collection agency.
posted by Redmond Cooper at 9:08 PM on March 16, 2010

Love sallybrown's suggestion. Right before my kids were born I dismantled one of our free-standing bookcases and donated somewhere between 50 and 75 books to our local library. If you're a US citizen and you itemize, the donation is tax-deductible.
posted by zarq at 8:25 AM on March 17, 2010

Just call them. And then write them a cheque for twice what you owe. Libraries are the best.
posted by SassHat at 11:14 AM on March 17, 2010

Or, PS, I can pay your VA library fines for you as a wedding gift. Does your man have any wayward fines?
posted by SassHat at 11:14 AM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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