Student challenges $620 in library fees; KU charged $10 fee on dozens of books it claimed were damaged, but basis of fee unclear

photo by: Lauren Fox

University of Kansas doctoral student Jenny Nielsen, pictured outside Watson Library on April 21, has been fined over $600 by KU Libraries in fees for library books.

A University of Kansas doctoral student is being charged hundreds of dollars after returning about 40 books to KU Libraries earlier this semester.

Jenny Nielsen, a PhD candidate studying the philosophy of science, said that she returned all of the books except one in the condition in which she received them and that she feels she is being charged for decades of damage.

Nielsen has attended KU since 2011 and said she’s never had an issue like this with KU Libraries. Years ago, she received some late fees. But this is the only time she’s received library fees she considers unjust — and they amount to $620.

Nielsen said that the fees are jeopardizing her reenrollment and that if she is able to pay off the fees she’s concerned about using the library system again.

“I’m going to be very scared to check out books,” she said. “It’s a major headache.”

As for KU Libraries, it says that the matter is concluded. Nielsen appealed the fees in mid-March and heard Monday that her appeal was not granted.

“The Library Appeals Board – an independent panel of faculty, student and staff representatives not associated with KU Libraries – rendered its decision, which is the final determination of this matter by the University,” Christy McWard, executive director of the Office of Communications & Advancement for KU Libraries, said in an email to the Journal-World.

McWard said it’s “extremely unusual” for a student to be assessed a large fine for damaged books. Patron disputes concerning damaged items are rare, she said, and the last time the Library Appeals Board was called upon to address a disputed charge was in the spring of 2017.

“Charging a patron for damages to books is always a last resort and done only after our conservation experts rule out natural wear and tear,” McWard wrote. “In the rare instance of an usually large fine, KU Libraries staff have worked with the patron to reduce default fees in an effort to help ease the financial impact to them.”

KU Libraries charged Nielsen for 43 books she returned. Every book had a fee attached to it. Of the 43 books, 35 had $10 “lost item processing fees,” four had $20 “lost item processing fees” and four others each had “lost item replacement” fees ranging from $22 to $105.

Nielsen did not lose any books or turn any books in late, she said. When she asked about the fees, Nielsen said the library sent her pictures of some of the books she returned that had marks on the cover, dirt on the spine and worn or stained edges, seemingly implying that the fees were charged due to the condition of the books, not because they were lost. But Nielsen said that’s the condition the books were in when she received them from the library.

photo by: Contributed Photos

These are a couple of the photos KU doctoral candidate Jenny Nielsen received from KU Libraries of books she had returned. Nielsen said this was the condition the books were in when she received them from the library.

McWard, however, said that all books that are returned to the library are inspected by multiple staff members before getting put back on the shelf.

“KU Libraries staff are trained to examine the condition of a book, identify damaged items, and route them to the conservation services department, where the extent of any damage can be fully assessed,” McWard wrote in an email to the Journal-World.

Nielsen said she believed marks on at least one of the books she returned could have been removed by simply cleaning the cover, but Nielsen said the library had specifically said not to clean the books she checked out.

“To prevent damage to library materials, we ask that you do not attempt to clean books yourself. You may want to let them sit for 96 hours before handling in accordance with NEDCC guidelines,” a Feb. 19 email from KU Libraries said.

There is one book that received wear and tear in Nielsen’s ownership, she said, and she’s willing to pay for that book. But Nielsen appealed the fees on all the other books.

Her official appeal to the library did not change the outcome of its decision. Nielsen said KU Libraries did state that “lost item processing” and “lost item replacement” were not the correct labels for her fees, but Nielsen said KU Libraries did not provide further documentation to her justifying the fees for each book with corrected language. Nielsen is also skeptical that those involved on the appeal board actually saw the books in person. The appeal process took place over Zoom, she said. Additionally, some of the books she returned and had been charged money for have already been reshelved and are available to be checked out, she said.

McWard did not answer the Journal-World’s questions about whether KU Libraries justified the fees to Nielsen with corrected language, if the appeal board viewed the books in person or why some of the books have been reshelved if they were in poor condition.

When asked if the fees were the result of any financial difficulties at KU Libraries, McWard said that KU Libraries does not assess fines and fees based on the financial health of the libraries.

“In fact, fines and fees collected by the libraries represent a very small portion of our annual operating budget – less than one-tenth of one percent in FY20,” she wrote. “Fines and fees are not the norm. Most that are incurred are fairly modest and quickly resolved.”

Lawrence’s Public Library switched to a fine-free model in 2020. McWard said that while there could be exploration of a fine-free model at KU Libraries in the future, the leadership team has not discussed the possibility at length.

“Fine-free models often do not include situations where materials are damaged beyond repair,” McWard said. “A primary reason fine policies are established is to maintain a collection for the use of all patrons and not allow the actions of a single user to inhibit that access.”

As for Nielsen, she said she is concerned and confused by the whole situation — “I’ve turned books back in this condition (for years),” she said, specifying that some of the books she was charged for she had checked out numerous times in the past in the same condition.

Nielsen is unable to check out any more books from KU Libraries until her fees have been paid, and she’s concerned about being able to afford the fees.

“I really love the library…and so that’s why this is devastating for me,” she said. “I might not be able to pay this back for some time so I don’t know how long I’m going to go without library privileges and it’s very sad to me because I’ve been a library borrower since I was a kid.”


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