Are Overdue Fines Worth It at Public Libraries?

They restrict access to resources for those that need them the most — starkly in contrast with the core values of public libraries.

Library Book Texture. Photo: Calsidyrose via flickr/CC BY 2.0

The effectiveness and necessity of overdue fines at public libraries has been a hot topic of debate recently in the library world. A growing number of libraries have started conversations of what it would look like to do away with overdue fines. Would it change the behavioral patterns of patrons for better or worse? Are overdue fines really worth it?

Most of us have an overdue fine horror story. I personally remember, at age 7 or 8, checking out a book and receiving an overdue notice for it in the mail. I looked “everywhere” in the house (as kids always do), and absolutely could not find it. I hid the notice from my mom and did not tell her I had lost the book. I henceforth declared to myself I would never ever ever ever ever go back to the library again, and therefore wouldn’t have to pay for the book I’d lost.

A few months later, my friend’s mother took us to the library. I was absolutely petrified to show my face in the building, much less hand over my library card to the employee at the circulation desk. After much convincing and assurance from my friend’s mom that she would pay whatever fine I had on my account, I decided to brave my fears and check out another book. To our enormous surprise, there were no fines on my card. My own mom had apparently already taken care of whatever amount I owed.

Unfortunately, not all kids escape the grip of library overdue fines as easily and as luckily as I did. Many times those experiences as a child leave lasting life-long impacts on people’s perception and use of their public library.

Why Are There Overdue Fines, Anyway?

Overdue fines encourage patrons to use library materials in a responsible and considerate matter. Library items are shared by the community and should be returned in a timely fashion to ensure everyone has an opportunity to borrow those items. I have heard of fines ranging from 10 cents up to $3 per day varying by item (book, DVD, audiobook, etc.) and library.

Additionally, fines can bolster a library’s annual budget. A survey taken by the Library Journal found that of the 454 libraries in the US in 2017, about 75% put the money acquired from overdue fines toward their general fund. 15% reported that overdue fines go toward purchasing or repairing materials, 5% said the money goes to programming, and 6% said that overdue fines go back into the city or county general fund.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

It’s a well-known fact that libraries have overdue fines. For many of us, this is not an issue. We take out books and return them when we can. If they’re late, we pay the small fine and continue to use our library cards as normal.

But, what about those families that can’t afford to pay? What about kids that have a hard home life and can’t get someone to bring them to the library on time? Most libraries have a policy that suspends a patron’s account if there are too many fines accumulated. At the library I used to work at, this threshold was $5.

The big deal is that overdue fines restrain public libraries from fulfilling the principal of universal access to information they strive for as a government-funded institution. Fines restrict access. Period. For an establishment that seeks to evolve around changing community needs, this is unacceptable.

Albeit, patrons who deliberately steal and vandalize library property should still be penalized. However, there are many understandable and uncontrollable circumstances in which patrons are unable to return their books on time. One story from the director of the New York Public Library stood out to me in particular.

“At our 125th Street Library in Harlem, for instance, a young mother tried to check out a wi-fi hotspot so her daughter could do her homework. Homeless, the family couldn’t afford broadband internet, and her daughter’s grades suffered. Unfortunately, her library card was blocked, not because the family was irresponsible, but because one night, they were abruptly moved from one shelter to another, and in their haste to leave, they left behind a library book and DVD. The fines accumulated quickly, and without any way to pay them, their only hope for internet access was no longer available.”

Considering more common situations occurring in small-town libraries, overdue fines can still take a big toll on families. Imagine a young mom checks out 45 picture books for her two small children. Life is busy and she loses track of time — she returns the books 3 days late.

At the smallest fine of 10 cents per day, she is left with a $13.50 fine. At my local library, the daily find is 25 cents per day, meaning she would owe $33.75. On a tight budget, this could be a tough, unexpected payment to come to terms with. Imagine at a library with 50 cent or 1 dollar per day per item fines. Yikes.

If this happens more than once, using the library will become unaffordable. She might intentionally leave her family’s account suspended so her children can’t check out anymore books. Fines restrict access.

Similar stories happen daily at public libraries across the country. Often, it is the patrons that use and need library services the most that end up being excluded for financial reasons. For a place that aims to include and serve everyone in the community, these long established policies regarding overdue fines do not add up.

VAYF — TU 12–3 (1). Photo: San José Public Library via flickr/CC BY 2.0

What Are the Solutions?

In a perfect world, libraries would not have overdue fines. Patrons would take responsibility seriously enough to return their items in a timely manner — ha. If that were the case, this article wouldn’t be written.

So, this world isn’t perfect. That’s why some US libraries are getting creative to reduce or eliminate the amount of fines being issued to their patrons.

The director of the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, NY said this regarding eliminating overdue fines: “Folks who are dilatory about returns have not changed their habits, but the interaction at the circulation desk is much less fraught. My staff is not put in the position of punishing those who return items late, and we have a donation box for people who still have a need to pay a fine.”

Many libraries who have nixed fines but are suffering with the lost budget money have kept a donation box at their circulation desk for people who want to “clear their conscience” when they return an overdue item. In addition, the Library Journal found that 61% of libraries offer ways other than monetary payment to pay off fines. This includes volunteering, food drives, giving children and teens the opportunity to “read down” their fines, donations in the amount of a certain percentage of accrued fines, and amnesty programs.

In 2017, some major public library systems offered an amnesty period where patrons could return overdue items and their fines would be waived. The results were pretty incredible. “…in recent amnesty programs, Chicago Public Library received at least 20,000 returned items, worth roughly $500,000; Los Angeles Public Library received 64,633 books, and 13,701 patrons had fines forgiven and accounts unblocked. Indeed, the San Francisco Public Library recently held a six-week amnesty and recovered 699,563 overdue items, including 12,246 items that were more than 60 days past due.” Not only did these amnesty periods allow patrons to recover access to their accounts, but it brought back thousands of items that would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace… a win-win for everyone involved in my eyes.

Recently, two large library systems have taken the leap and done away with overdue fines. The Phoenix Public Library system and San Francisco Public Libraries have announced they will waive all existing fines on patron accounts, and will not charge any new fines moving forward. The Phoenix Public Library gives this reasoning for the policy change: “We are committed to making our library as accessible as possible to those that need it most and want to: 1) bring back library users whose library accounts are blocked due to unpaid overdue fines; and 2) encourage more people to sign up for a library card and use library materials without the fear of incurring overdue fines they cannot afford to pay.”

On the other hand, there are definitely foreseeable obstacles with eliminating fines. What about high-demand items that have a lot of holds? If patrons can keep an item without any consequences, this could delay circulation to patrons who do follow the due dates. Changing the overdue fines policy could potentially cause a change of behavior from patrons by not actively encouraging timely responsibility with library items.

The opposition says that the library is already founded on equality. Because everyone has the same opportunity to obtain and use their library card at the start, eliminating fines would tilt the policies in favor of low-income or irresponsible patrons instead of increasing accessibility. However, libraries are meant to be a public resource for everyone. Limiting access to any members of the community in any capacity is against the core fundamentals of what public libraries stand for.

After all, no one wants to pay overdue fines. Let’s move on from the argument that they keep patrons accountable, and just enjoy the break we all receive when libraries go fine-free.

Examining life and all its wonders. Self-reliance, sustainability, resiliency, and questioning societal norms are my things.

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