Story at a glance

  • The days of the “shush library” are long gone. Are overdue library fines next?
  • Overdue book fines cost more to collect and block access to those who need library services most.
  • No one benefits from blocking a child’s library card, says one librarian.

Desperate to keep her three young children occupied during the holidays, Shelia (our fictional heroine) went to her local New York Public Library and checked out a bag full of kid’s books, some video games and DVDs. After the holidays Shelia realizes all this material is a week overdue, and she now has a $136 overdue fine. While there are no tough-talking NYC library cops as in this classic Seinfield episode, if Shelia can’t pay, her library card will be blocked and a collection agency will harass her for payment.  

However, if the same overdue materials were checked out of a Chicago public library, all Shelia would face is a smile and a sincere “thank you” when she returned them. 

Chicago public libraries went fine free at the end of September last year, as did San Francisco. And to start the new year, Seattle, along with libraries in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Colorado, have announced they are now fine free. This spring the Los Angeles Public Library, which serves more than 18 million residents ,will join the more than 200 cities and municipalities in the U.S. that no longer fine people for overdue books. 

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Chicago also wiped away patrons’ outstanding debt, which prompted a 240 percent increase in returned materials. Today, more than two months later, there is still a surge of books that hadn’t seen the inside of a Chicago library in years being returned, says Patrick Molloy, Chicago Public Library’s director of marketing and government relations.

“The first few weeks after the announcement we had insane circulation numbers,” says Molloy, as people with blocked library cards returned overdue materials and were finally able to take out new material. “Twenty percent of blocked cards belonged to kids — no one benefits from blocking a child’s library card.”

Library fines and fees disproportionately impact lower-income families and individuals, Molloy says. Being unable to pay the fines becomes a barrier to their use of a library. Since equity is a major issue for Chicago’s new Mayor Lori Lightfoot, she was quick to back the library’s fine-free proposal, he says.

Fines account for less than 1 percent of Chicago Public Library’s revenue stream, and there is also a collection cost in terms of staff time, keeping cash on hand, banking and accounting. The San Diego library system did a detailed study and found the costs were higher than the fines collected, says Molloy. 

Other libraries have also determined collection costs usually offset any revenue from fines, says Meg DePriest, a state library consultant. Everyone assumes fines are an incentive to return borrowed materials, but the data show no difference in return rates between libraries that charge fines and those that don’t, says DePriest, who wrote a seminal white paper on the topic in 2016

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“It was such a strongly held belief amongst librarians, so I was very surprised there was no proof fines actually worked,” she concluded. She has since been buried in an avalanche of interviews and requests for presentations on going fine-free from librarians.

An equality issue

Fines do affect who uses the library by reducing the number of patrons from low-income groups who can’t afford to buy books. “We’re losing people who need a library’s services most,” DePriest says. And fines are a barrier for the very people libraries really want inside their doors: youth and teenagers. 

Yesterday’s “shush libraries” are long gone, she says. Today they are dynamic community centers where people of all ages meet and get access to a wide range of information. The measurement of success for a library is the number of patrons using its services not how much they get in fines. And by not collecting fines, they can collect new users instead, says DePriest.

Earlier this year the American Library Association passed a resolution acknowledging that fines were a barrier and urged libraries to review their policies. 

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Social inequity is a major issue of our time and information access can help reduce that inequity, says Andy Woodworth, a librarian in New Jersey. Woodworth runs the “End Library Fines” blog with DePriest’s help, which is packed with reference material and maps the locations of fine-free libraries in the U.S. and other countries. 

Improving literacy

Access to libraries is one of the keys to improving literacy rates in America, says Woodworth, who notes that many prison inmates are functionally illiterate. Good reading skills at a young age leads to higher high school graduation rates and dramatically reduces the odds of being incarcerated, experts say.

One common objection to going fine free that Woodworth hears is that it fails to teach people responsibility. “That’s never been the mission of any library I know. Our mission is to provide equitable access to information.” 

Chicago’s Molloy agrees, saying that fines were only about getting library material back. But it turned out “with fines we lost patrons, the fines weren’t paid, and we didn’t get our books back.”

“Going fine free has been very well received.”

Published on Jan 08, 2020