Our Reading Lives

Overdue Library Books in Life and On Television

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Rachel Wagner

Staff Writer

Rachel Wagner is a writer from New Jersey, currently living in Newark with her son. Her blog and more of her published writing can be found at rachel-wagner.com

Rupi Kaur’s book Milk and Honey cost me $40, and I don’t even have it anymore. I lent my borrowed library copy to a friend earlier this year, and it was lost. I offered the university librarians to replace the book myself when I told them it was gone. They said the library they borrowed it from wouldn’t allow that, so I had to pay in order to take out another book. I stood there a couple weeks later with Andrea Ritchie’s Invisible No More in my hands, knowing I needed it and knowing my local library didn’t have it, and just paid the fine. At least I liked a few of Kaur’s poems.

Within a couple months, a different book was lost by my local library after I returned it. It was Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman. When I noticed it still on my checked out list after bringing it back, I started doubting myself. I returned a couple books at one time. Maybe I did leave it at home by accident. I searched all over the place and just could not find it. I knew I returned it. I renewed it about seven times before they finally found it.

I thought about my recent run-ins with the library while watching the Seinfeld episode “The Library” the other day. The New York Public Library comes after him for a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer that he didn’t return in 1971. He swears that it was a mistake and he actually returned it. It turns out that he returned Tropic of Capricorn, not Tropic of Cancer. I figure there is some symbolic reason for those books to be chosen for the episode, but I’ve never read either. Somehow I’d gotten through a number of American fiction courses with only reading The Wings of the Dove.

Anyway, the episode uses some cliché library tropes: shhing and sexually active librarians, in addition to the library fines narrative. A dramatic missing book investigator named Mr. Bookman also follows people around the whole episode. Seinfeld’s big joke in the middle of the episode includes a riff on the pettiness of fines. If a book is late, he says, “what are you gonna charge me? A nickel?”

That episode precedes the way Parks and Recreation comedic treatment libraries. The running joke is that everyone hates it. Leslie refers to them as “the most diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats I’ve ever seen.” The “punk ass book jockey” line comes from this “Ron and Tammy” episode too. When the library offers to build a branch on the lot Leslie wants to develop, she goes down there only to find out that Ron’s ex-wife, Tammy, initiated the plan. Tammy uses a $3 fine as a little icebreaker, but Leslie lashes out, not realizing she’s joking. She yells out “that’s why everybody hates the library,” while throwing change on Tammy’s desk before being brought down to earth.

A season later, Ron gets served with a late fee for the book It’s Not the Size of the Boat: Embracing Life with a Micro-Penis. He knows by the title that it’s just a way for Tammy to get his attention. Ron goes to her office with Leslie to tell Tammy to clear the fines because she should know that, “in my entire adult life I have never checked a book out of the library.”

Stories like these work in television because people really stop using the library because they have a fine. I can admit that I was holding off paying that $40 as long as possible. A few districts in the U.S. have already stopped charging late fees to curb people from abandoning the library over a few dollars, and I hope that more places consider doing it too. Reasonable access plays a major role in people’s reading habits.