Monday, April 11, 2016

Some Rules Are Meant to Be Broken

I find this post over at Associations Now fascinating. It's about a difference of opinion between the American Library Association and the Wisconsin Library Association over whether or not libraries should charge fees and pursue collection for unreturned library items. The WLA says yes, these are taxpayer-funded resources, and people can't keep them indefinitely. The ALA says no, charging people late fees and sending collection agents after them results in people using the library less, and that's contrary to our mission.

Which side are you on?

I'm squarely with the ALA. The position of the WLA strikes me as an example of the small-minded, rule-following mentality one often encounters in the association world. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about. The meeting planner more concerned with the number of chairs rather than the people sitting in them. The IT professional more concerned with security of the network than the people using it. In the case of the WLA, it sounds like the accountant more concerned with the dollars than the people the dollars are spent on. And one thing they all have in common is that, even when it can be shown that the effect of the rule they treasure is to detract from the mission of the organization, they are eager to use their entrenched power to keep fighting for it.

Put yourself in the shoes of a library Board member. For the sake of the example, I looked up the mission statement of my local public library: "Inspiration starts here - we help people read, learn, and connect." (Nice!) With that objective in mind, would you be more concerned with the library's books or the people reading them?

Unfortunately, the same local library has a strict policy on late fees, that includes sending patrons to collection agencies.

But when presented with evidence that your policy is keeping people from using your library's resources, wouldn't you at least raise of few questions?

What if we stopped charging late fees? What if we adopted a new policy? What if we stamped every resource with a clear and simple message: "This library resource is for the benefit of our entire community. Please return it when you're done with it so others can use it." What would be the effect on our bottom line? On the fulfillment of our mission? Which effect would be greater?

I'm not arguing that the "theft" of library materials would stop with such a policy in place. Undoubtedly, a library with such a policy would still lose some portion of its resources each year, and would have to incur costs to replace them.

And, by extension, I'm not arguing that the abuse of association resources would stop with the adoption of parallel policies in our space.

What I am arguing is that there are often strong voices in our associations who seem more concerned about punishing abusers of association resources than they are about fulfilling the association's mission. And it is important not to let those voices make the decisions about how the abusers will be dealt with.

Some people never return library books. That's a fact. But that doesn't necessarily mean that a library should stop lending to them.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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