A New York state graduate student was left stunned after being informed that she owed her university library almost $12,000 in fines.
Binghamton University’s Hannah Jones told Newsweek that “it made my heart stop” when she first saw the email telling her she owed $11,900 for 119 lost books. Eager to share her experience, Jones later posted a screenshot of the message to TikTok. That’s when things took an unexpected twist.
America holds the record for the largest fine for an overdue library book. In November 2003, the Kewanee Public Library in Illinois charged Emily Canellos-Simms $345.14, according to Guinness World Records.
Forty-seven years earlier, her mom had checked out a copy of the poetry book Days and Deeds but never returned it. Canellos-Simms found the book in her mother’s house decades later and duly returned it with a check for the fine, which was calculated at around 2 cents a day.
It could have been worse, though. She could have ended up facing the kind of fines detailed in the email Jones received from her university library last month.
To understand the full story, Jones said, you have to go back three years to when she first checked out 119 books from the library.
“I was preparing for my comprehensive exams and prospectus defense. I checked all of the books out then during the same week,” she said. “I kept the books because they became part of my dissertation and are filled with sticky notes. In three years, no one has requested any of these books.”
Jones is studying history and has a reading list of over 300 books, meaning it’s entirely normal for students to check out significant numbers of books. The university library allows them to check out up to 200 at a time.
The problem arose when she “ignored” a series of emails at the beginning of the semester informing her that she needed to renew the books. Otherwise, they would be marked as lost and she would face an automatic fine of $100 per book.
“March is a very busy time of the semester and I was working on a deadline,” Jones said. “I didn’t realize how much time had passed since.”
She admitted she initially felt panic upon seeing the email informing her she was facing a total fine of $11,900. Fortunately, she knew exactly what to do and emailed the library to explain that the books were still in use.
“They responded almost immediately and didn’t make me suffer for too long, thank God,” she said. The amount was reduced from $11,900 to the standard $20. But Jones saw an opportunity to engage with her peers and fellow college students.
That was when she decided to post a video to TikTok with the email screenshot and a caption that read: “The librarian who sent this email must have felt so powerful.”
Alongside the email, Jones included a clip showing a pile of books on a desk and in a bookshelf. “The books aren’t lost, I’m just hoarding them until I finish my dissertation,” she explained in an on-screen caption.
Jones created the clip as a bit of fun. “I thought the jump scare of the email would be relatable content for grads,” she said. “All of my friends in the department have this number of books checked out, plus professors. I didn’t think that part would be controversial.”
However, the clip soon went viral and led to something of an online backlash. Jones realized that the email she had received was automated and that there was no power-mad librarian behind the keyboard.
“But I couldn’t change the caption,” she said. “I guess that, combined with the word hoarding, made people think I hate librarians and steal books.”
Since then, interest in the clip has grown, with Jones reading comments slamming her as “entitled.” Some have even suggested that her degree be “withheld” or that she should be banned from borrowing books, despite doing everything within the library’s rules.
“When I explain that it’s common practice, they say I’m not remorseful,” she said. “It’s weird that they think I should be punished for gatekeeping books, but the library doesn’t.”
Ultimately, she was “surprised” at what happened. “I made the TikTok to connect with other grad students, and it seems like hoarding is a trigger word for a lot of people. I’m also surprised people think I was being negative toward librarians or looking for sympathy. That wasn’t my intention at all.”
It’s been a learning experience, but it’s not one Jones is going to dwell on too much.
“People are hateful and quick to judge without knowing the context. I should have said in the TikTok that the fine was dropped, but I assumed people would know that,” she said. “I would want everyone to know our library has millions of books. I regret not renewing them on time, sure, but I didn’t keep others from accessing books.”
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