According to the New York Public Library my borrowed copy of The Best American Essays 2009 is a week late. Fines, so far, have amounted to a total fine of exactly one dollar, which I don’t plan on ever paying. This is because my local library caught fire last week, and has since been forced to undergo some emergency repairs. Those two things may or may not be related.
Other similarly unpaid fines include a fifty cents charge for The Amazing Book of Useless Information, a whopping $1.25 for Hamlet’s Blackberry and three separate fines for 33 1/3 Greatest Hits: Volume One. In total, I owe the New York Public Library $8.00. Two truths emerge from this situation: One, I am really terrible at returning books on time, and two – the public library is a like a vampire to my wallet. Except that instead of preying on me at night, it closes.
The library fine is one of many so-called negative incentives. Similar to the spankings that your mother may or may not still give you, a library fee is intended to coax you into improving your behavior. Each fine is meant to act as a tiny, paper cut-like reminder that you, as a citizen, are failing. And you are, frankly, because for every day you fail to return your secretly-borrowed copy of Twilight, another Twilight-less library patron suffers in wait.
But that’s the problem. Because the goal of library fees is, via your wallet, to compel you to improve, it, by its very nature undermines your attempts at autonomous self-improvement. Suddenly, deciding to return a book on time isnt about abiding by the rules of the borrower-borrowee relation, but rather a reaction to the fear of losing money. Once money is involved, the game changes.
But this change in relation is, in the end, almost entirely necessary. Library fines are in the simplest sense an admission that humans are, if not inherently selfish, at least innately forgetful. You can’t especially blame the public library for merely recognizing and reacting an inextricable part of human nature. In the end, maybe I can’t either. Though it is easy to scoff at the fees, late fees might be, in the end, the only thing standing between us and anarchy.
Image courtesy of flickr user LWY