Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why bring your books back on time?

For various reasons I've been thinking lately about Library fines, and what affect they have on Library user behaviour. Now this is outside of my main work area, but being the curiously minded soul that I am I kept thinking about this. I came up with an idea from scratch, that is partially inspired by the University of Westminster blocking scheme (item 3.3 on this pdf), and partially by the chapter in Freakonomics that deals with fining parents who are late picking up their kids from nursery.

Blocks I'm instinctively wary of, because although they're a very transparent system, the results are pretty harsh. In Freakonomics, it was posited that the fines just make parents feel less bad about being late, rather than making them more likely to turn up on time. I wanted to find a system that gave an incentive for good behavior that people might respond to, and that also gave enough disincentive to bring things back late repetitively.

This is my own work - if you know of a Library that operates a system like this, please let me know! I'm also aware that this idea might sound completely mad. Comments welcome!

Library borrowing allowance. There are 3 principles:

1. A user starts the year with allowance to borrow XX number of books.

2. The allowance improves by +1 for every book returned on time.
        o There is a maximum allowance. Good library users will quickly reach this maximum.

3. The allowance decreases -1 for every day a book is late.
        o Minimum allowance of 1 book loan, which allows all users to rebuild their allowance.

The incentive is therefore clear – if you bring books back late, you’ll be seriously restricted in your borrowing ability until to start bringing books back on time again. Think of it like a credit score, except it’s really simple to understand what affects the score, and really easy to improve it if goes down.

I like this idea for the following reasons:

· Rewards-based, not punishment-based incentive to respect the system.
· Does punish the worst offenders the most – lengthier overdues cause bigger loan allowance reductions.
· Normal behaviour has little affect on the balance. Only the worst breaches will drag a balance down to the minimum.
· Restoring the balance gets easier with each successful return as you have the potential to double your borrowing power, rewarding good behaviour.
· Removes the perception that the Library punishes late returns to make money.
· Removal of cash transactions from the service point.
· Level playing field for rich and poor students.
· Different loan types could be set to affect the allowance more than others – for example, shorter loan types could count double.

Possible problems:
· I don’t know of anyone trying this before – it would probably need coding from scratch.
· It might be hard to keep it transparent regarding what has happened on an account to cause allowance increases/decreases. However, fines are probably no easier to understand.
· People might try and borrow and return items straight away in order to boost or repair their score. If you excluded items borrowed for less than say 1/2 hour(s) then this would probably solve this in the main.
· People who are good all year round can then get away with more abuse during exams.

So, am I mad, or might this work?


Jo said...

Hmmm, interesting concept - I think I understand.

Wonder if it is potentially open to abuse (though accept most solutions will be in some way!). I'm wondering about those who go to the library on the first day, max out their allowance, and never return a single book? What's the incentive to bring them back? Maybe they only need the core few text books and they got them on the first day?

I'd be concerned that the high demand books would never be returned. How would recalls work?

Chris Keene said...

I like the idea.

A slight aside, when I started at Sussex Long loan books had no fines.

Problem was users never returned them until they were sent an invoice warning, weeks later, after many overdue notices. But to do this Lib would make sure it has it's facts right, find out price of book, write up invoice, send to registered address(es) etc. Had a small amy constantly processing these, and students were unhappy that books were not on shelves. So fines were introduced, so staff could spend doing more useful work, and students more likely to find books. TBH the extra revenue has helped as well.

On a similar note, variable loan lengths are worth a consideration? (i.e. vary based on demand for a given book, perhaps even based on the time of year, bit like easyjet)

Dave Puplett said...

Thanks Jo.

If someone did that now, most Libraries would fine users then charge them for the replacements. If you used this system, you could still invoice for the books.

The thing is, the longer you keep a book, the harder it'll be to borrow later. For most users this would be a good reason to generally bring stuff back.

My question is - would this system bring better results than fines? a lot of people in my experience are happy to just pay the fine in order to keep the book a bit longer!

Dave Puplett said...

And thanks Chris!

Yes, I do agree about variable loan lengths - there's a good case to make about not putting short-term due dates on anything that you've borrowed that hasn't been requested.

If someone places a request, then you get an email saying the item is then due back sooner.

This could work great in a small library, though a big academic one would probably end up in chaos!

As a side-note, there's a bit assumption by me here that Libraries could do without fines revenue. In my experience, it's not something that tends to get talked about very openly!

helencurry said...

I do like the way this levels the playing field for rich/poor students. It is always frustrating when someone keeps a high-demand book overdue the week before the deadline, then happily pays up because it is 'worth it'. With the financial stakes so high, of course a few pounds extra are worth spending for a better grade.
Some will do it routinely - an extra premium service that they can afford.

Perhaps the fines do add to the impression that university is purely a commercial service. Your point from Freakonomics makes sense - paying up implies the student is then absolved. It bypasses the sense of community that can provide an added disincentive, knowing that they are depriving fellow coursemates of resources. Or perhaps I am being naive? Perhaps with they are aware of competing with their coursemates and don't mind disadvantaging them?

Of course, the students aren't without their own community approaches to the cheating the system. I know of some who will get together with friends to get out all the core texts, then share them around, sharing the fines alike. And if they are blocked, they get a friend to borrow for them. I think these are the hardest problems to address.

So here's my really mean alternative to hit them where it hurts. If they keep books overdue, they lose marks from their degree. Keeping books late gives them an unfair advantage, so they should be penalised for it. As a solution, it directly connects the problem behaviour with the consequences. And it is equal for both rich and poor. Of course implementing it would be another story...

Andy said...

I'm loving your thinking, Mr Puplett. Particularly in the sense you are looking at the problem and trying to come up with something more sensible that could work.

Fines are a terrible thing. Blockages even worse. The amount of hassle they cause at library service points doesn't sit well with the idea of keeping libraries relevant to the people that use them, and the people that might use them in the future. When students have to pay even more in fees it will just seem like an added tax on them (Value Added!) if we constantly screw them over with the price of a pint here and there. Anyway...

I'd like to suggest another simpler alternative that could probably more easily be undertaken using a current LMS.

It's a radical one too


Well, to the point of when the library card expires, anyway.

So, let me sketch it for you:

Allowances generally stay the same.

Loan periods automatically default to the expiration date on the card of the borrower.

Fines are big (huh?) - I said no loan periods so how do you get fines? Well, on recalled books that aren't returned promptly....

Recall systems are shit hot and set to 3 days term time/1 week out of term. (ah, that is why fines are big)

Invoicing team are also shit hot but would stand on a much stronger footing as if someone needs the book then an invoice/hefty fine is far more understandable. If a charge is levied then it is because someone needs the book rather than just because you didn't bring the book back when the library expected you to/you forgot to renew.

Charging the user for the right reason (they are restricting someone else's access to a book).

Less time spent shelving.

More space on the shelves.

Less hassle at the counter and less time spent taking cash/cashing up.

An understandable system for everyone.

Counter staff more invested in it as it would be damn clear why the library is fining people.

Things that would have to be done:
Reference/E copies would need to be held for those students who don't want to plan ahead and want access to books off the cuff.

And all the other obvious things like publicising, formulating new regulations etc.

It would be a huge change.

Probably less money going through the library tills.

Those poor people doing invoicing/chasing would have to deal with a lot of hassle.

Might only work in a small library or a small part of a library (teaching collection etc.)

Obviously loads of holes in this but there are always going to be. There are many in other more traditional ways of doing it which is why people like you feel compelled to think about radical alternatives. Would it be radical in any other sector? Do you think the Love Film boss fell of his chair when someone suggested there weren't any late fees? I digress.


Dave Puplett said...

Gamify Your Library Fines - http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/2011/03/31/gamify-your-library-fines/

"Instead of just using traffic cameras to catch people speeding, they’re using them to also catch people obeying the speed limit – and by following the law, those people earn a chance at winning a share of the revenue generated by speeding tickets. By offering a reward, the police are hoping to encourage more people to drive safely."