Through the years, public librarians have struggled with the idea of charging fines and fees for late, lost, and damaged materials. Today, many libraries have decided to eliminate certain fines and/or fees. How they remove them, for whom, and for what types of materials vary from library to library.
There is no doubt that overdue fines and replacement fees present a significant barrier to use for those patrons who are most in need of library services, particularly children of low-income families and the elderly. ALA supports the idea of equal access to all, as noted in its core values statement: “All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users.”
Mapping Fine-Free Libraries
The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) is “an innovation and impact tank of North America’s leading public library systems.” It fosters “cutting-edge research and strategic partnerships to elevate the power of libraries as essential, transformative institutions for the 21st-century” and compiles a map of fine-free public libraries in the U.S. and Canada that is updated regularly. It currently includes 128 systems.
Curtis Rogers, ULC’s director of communications, describes some of the rationale behind libraries choosing to go fine-free and the different approaches they take:
By a wide margin, the most common reason that libraries are explaining their decision to go fine-free is that it will remove unfair barriers to library access for youth and patrons from disadvantaged backgrounds. A common, related driver is increasing engagement with the library and inviting users back who had been shut out because of fines. Some libraries have also cited that the cost to collect and oversee overdue fines did not justify the revenue generated by the fines—and they have found that eliminating fines saves on money and staff time. Several of the larger library systems have noted that overdue materials fines were generating a negligible percentage of their annual budget (sometimes less than 1%).
Rogers explains ULC’s findings on the differing ways libraries are implementing fine-free programs, which are identified on its map: “Some libraries cease overdue fines on books, but still use them for DVDs, movies and other content. Some libraries have ceased overdue fines for youth materials, while others have done so for all patrons. Each community and each library is unique, and so the libraries’ fine policies are unique as well. Sometimes the policies are implemented on a temporary or trial basis. Several libraries have fine-free summers, or months.”
There is no right or wrong answer to going fine-free. Whether or not to implement such a program and how to do so are entirely up to the individual library—and are influenced by the users and usage profiles of its constituency. What works for the Boston Public Library may or may not work for the MidPointe Library System in Ohio. Each library should investigate not only its current user base, but also the community it supports in order to determine the correct approach to going fine-free.
Fine-Free Increases Library Usage
Linda Devlin is the director of the Camden County Library System in New Jersey. The system serves 334,343 residents in 26 communities throughout the county. Devlin describes the libraries’ mission as providing “access to information, services, and opportunities that empower, enrich and enhance the quality of life for all.” Its management team aims to remove roadblocks to that access: “We saw overdue fines as a barrier that was discouraging or preventing many residents from using the library, particularly vulnerable populations who would often benefit the most from our services. We realized that most of us had the financial means to pay library fines. However, others could make one mistake and be restricted from the use of library resources simply because they could not afford to pay their fines.” Devlin adds, “The Library eliminated overdue fines for items checked out on children’s cards in 2016 and saw an increase in borrowing and library use among children.”
As of July 1, 2019, the Camden County Library System went fine-free except for “two high-demand collections with limited availability: museum passes and Grab and Go items (extra copies of high demand books and DVDs with a three-day loan).” Materials on loan from other libraries are also not included.
Devlin reinforces the clear benefits of eliminating fines, noting the following statistics from the first 3 weeks since July 1:
- Number of previously blocked patrons who renewed their accounts: 38
- Number of items returned by patrons who were previously blocked: 75 items returned by 14 patrons
- Number of checkouts by patrons who were previously blocked: 812 checkouts by 143 patrons
- Number of overdue items that were returned: 239 (significantly higher than the same time period last year)
“The change has been enthusiastically received by the community,” Devlin says. “People are unexpectedly surprised when they find out they don’t owe the Library any money. This is resulting in a surge of positive feedback and press about Library services, which is invaluable.”
Patrons’ Positive Reactions
Some library systems have only eliminated overdue fines on children’s materials, while others offer amnesty periods during which users may return overdue items with no fines charged. Still others waive fines in return for food items, while some have dropped the amount to mere pennies per day per item.
The Denver Public Library (DPL) is a good example of how fines may be implemented differently depending on the age group. DPL has “never charged late fees for seniors, and in 2008, the library stopped collecting fines for [children’s] materials, and in 2014 for young adult materials,” says Michelle Jeske, Denver city librarian.
Jeske elaborates on the impact of moving to a fine-free environment: “Our customers love the new fabulous fine free change, and they have told us so, via messages, comments and actions. As of April 1, 22% of customers who had fines forgiven have re-engaged with the library in some form—that’s 23,000 customers being welcomed back into our spaces.”
Jeske continues, “Too often, fines penalize the most vulnerable families and individuals who can least afford them; we want to reverse this trend and get community members back into our buildings to use materials and enhance their quality of life and education.”
Districts in northern Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio have been in the news for going fine-free, while libraries in communities such as San Jose, Calif., have drastically lowered daily fines. Regardless of whether a library decides to eliminate fines altogether or just for certain segments of patrons, it should definitely place a magnifying glass on the community it supports to assess whether it is creating barriers preventing library use within that community.