Just Give Away all the Library Books!

I just finished reading the Saint Paul newspaper.

It seems our mayor wants to do away with library fines.

New fines, old fines, all of the fines… out the door.

Here we are, a society that can’t accept enough responsibility to iron a shirt…

and now we’re removing one of the few driving forces that encourage people to return books on time?

I think it’s… ridiculous, pandering, expensive… and… after thinking it over…

possibly a great idea!

Hear me out.

Kanheman and Tversky’s famous Prospect Theory, discussed in Thinking Fast and Slow, (Amazon.com), teaches us that people will work harder to maintain what they have, than they work to get ahead.


My personal notes on Prospect Theory
My personal notes on Prospect Theory

Knowing this, we might think that people will return library books on time, to maintain the money they already have.


There’s another aspect to Product Theory. Once a bet is almost a sure loser — in this case, already-late books that have accrued fines — then people will make irrational decisions… and rationalize their behaviors.

They’re already late. How can I get the most from them?

In this situation, it’s only a loss if the borrower returns to the library to pay!

If the patron keeps the books and music etc, it’s easy enough to rationalize that he has “paid for them” with those overdue fees (which he hasn’t actually paid).

In the mean time, that user doesn’t feel welcomed to return to the library any time soon, missing out on education and community for himself and possibly his family as well.

Thaler and Sunstein’ Nudge (Amazon.com) has taught us that there are better, often cheaper ways to encourage different behavior among people.

Some of the behavior modification ideas in Nudge that could apply to library fines include:

1. Reducing the cost of a transaction (aka these fines). When transactions have low costs and/or low friction, those transactions are more likely to take place. If fines are causing people either financial or social difficulties, then the libraries won’t be used as much as they could be.

2. Normalizing expected behavior through social proof. If libraries remind patrons that (for example) 80% of all books in that branch are returned on time, people will work to fit in with those norms. It could be even more effective to alert patrons where they fall on the distribution curve. The opinions and norms of immediate neighbors are very persuasive. (Perhaps you’ve seen something like this from your power company, telling you how you score in relation to your neighborhood power use?)

3. Priming patrons with the desired action, such as reminders on their phones when the books are coming due. We could easily use technology to simplify the act of renewing books and sending due-date reminders. Other priming techniques could be to set due-dates the 2nd of every month — OCTOBER TWO, BOOKS ARE DUE. Something like that, where it’s a common refrain to help keep the idea in peoples’ minds.

Surely I’m missing some great ideas. Let me know if you have any and I can add them below.

The point is, I was against this to begin with.

In 2018, we shouldn’t be stuck in the ways we think things should be done.

We need to explore new opportunities based on the brain science we’ve uncovered in the last 50+ years… and then test, test, test.

After giving it some thought and applying what I’ve learned here with PersuasionReadingList.com, I realized this library plan has great potential.

We could increase the use of our libraries and revitalize lower-income communities with increased access to knowledge. Communities that may have been turned off by the fines that they couldn’t pay, on books they couldn’t return on time.

After all, what is the purpose of a library, to collect fines or to share knowledge?