In an effort to promote financial accessibility, the Dewitt Wallace Library will no longer charge overdue fees for some late items. While students may still incur a charge for overdue resources on reserve, like textbooks and laptops, library administrators hope the change will foster a more welcoming library environment.
“This conversation about fines grew out of a larger conversation about barriers to access in our service and how we could begin to break down those barriers,” Library Specialist Michael Vieaux said. “This was one specific thing that we could target.”
According to Associate Director of Access, Instruction, and Research Services Angi Faiks, the policy change was a no-brainer.
“The barrier of the money made no sense once we sat and thought about it,” she said. “Bringing things back to the library is really important as part of a community expectation. That’s still really important, the goal of people knowing that taking something from the library and not bringing it back does have an impact on somebody. It’s the monetary aspect that’s totally unnecessary.”
In practice, Faiks said the financial burden might disproportionately punish students who are uncomfortable challenging their late charges.
“As [Vieaux] pointed out to me, we waive fines all the time,” she said. “Day in and day out… While I have no problem walking in and asking for someone to waive my fine, there are other people who might not feel that agency.
“There might be all sorts of people who would never ask,” Faiks continued. “And we don’t want to privilege the people who have no issue asking.”
“The biggest thing for me,” Vieaux said, “is making sure we’re providing access as often as we can in the best way we can. We have all this stuff here, we want it to be used.”
Library administrators have grappled with the decision to continue to hold students financially accountable for overdue items on reserve — like laptops, AV equipment and course-specific resources — but haven’t yet developed a satisfactory alternative.
“Most of the late fees I see are on reserve items,” Library Manager Nicole Frey ’21 said.
“I think, overall, [the new policy] won’t be a big change for many people but for a few people it’ll definitely really help,” Frey continued.
Frey, who has worked for the library since she was a first-year, recognizes that balancing resource availability and student accountability can be a struggle.
“The whole reserves and laptops thing is kind of a tricky subject,” she said. “On the one hand, especially for laptops, you can get fined two dollars an hour every hour you don’t turn it in, and that can really rack up.
“We want those resources to be available to everyone, but we don’t want it to be this huge economic burden for students,” Frey continued.
As technology becomes a larger part of students’ academic experience, reserve equipment is in higher demand than the general inventory, and late returns can prevent other students from completing their work.
The predicament is a microcosm of the national conversation among public libraries regarding the promotion of equity, diversity and inclusion as their spaces become more and more tech-centric. According to the American Library Association, 73 percent of public libraries report being the only access to public internet in their neighborhoods — an issue that a 2013 Pew Research study found disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities.
While the digital divide remains ever-present at Macalester, the library has made some important headway in making reserve technology more accessible. In 2017, the laptop circulation policy increased from a reserve limit of three hours to accommodate students who needed laptop access for 24 hours, 48 hours or one week.
Faiks said the library staff will continue to look for ways to create a more inclusive space.
“The library — as a profession and our library, in particular — has definite goals around equity, diversity and inclusion,” Faiks said. “That means examining our collection, our spaces and our staff.
“We’re trying to, at every turn, look more closely at what we do and what we’ve always done, and ask really good and critical questions about how this is helping, hurting, empowering or disenfranchising at every level in the system.”