Back in November, NPR ran an article called, “‘We Wanted Our Patrons Back’ – Public Libraries Scrap Late Fines To Alleviate Inequity.” In that article, author Emma Bowman synthesized what is a growing trend in the United States: libraries are moving away from their long-held practices of fining patrons for returning materials late. A highly recommended article for all the information on why libraries are doing this, but here’s a brief summary of the main points.
Across the nation large library systems from San Diego to Chicago to Boston, have looked at data to understand how late fees ultimately effect patrons. Findings consistently demonstrate that the fines have a disproportionate impact on children and low-income patrons, or really, people who stand to gain the most from free library resources. In interviews, surveys, focus groups, library systems have gathered that many times, lower income residents fear using the library for the potential of accruing fines which they struggle to pay and cause them shame. In our own experiences, we’ve observed something like this with parents who worry their children will not responsibly check out materials and will end up with a blocked card.
Of course, there’s always this worry that there will be no incentive to return materials once fines are removed. However, libraries across the nation have found that they actually have an increased rate of return on long-overdue items. These are items that patrons have received the maximum fines on, and they ultimately never come back to the library. By lifting the fines, they’ve incentivized people to keep coming back and return those items. Most libraries also find that fines do not actually correlate with people’s behavior: patrons who always return materials responsibly continue to return materials responsibly, patrons who struggle to get their materials back to the library still struggle, but now have incentive to bring the materials back.
Another factor that often gets neglected when discussing the ‘revenue’ of fines is the amount of time and money libraries invest in trying to collect them in the first place. In San Diego for example, the library found that it had spent almost $1 million to collect $675,000 in fines. Libraries are returning the focus to materials retention rather than tracking down people for minimal overdue fines.
We looked at some data from our own library and found interesting things: 25% of our users were ‘blocked’ from library resources due to outstanding fines. The majority of those owed between $5-$15. Even more revealing is that almost every patron blocked had accrued these fines in just one interaction with the library, often related to having multiple movies that were just one or two days late. Commonly people were being prevented from getting library materials for just one mistake.
Our own library, along with Chilton Public Library, has moved to this fine-free model. We also gave people a clean slate—outstanding overdue fines have been cleared from accounts. Instead of 25% of our users being blocked for outstanding fines, those patrons are being welcomed back in to the library to utilize our resources. Patrons will still be required to pay for materials they lose or damage, including past bills. We did this because we simply want to get our materials back, and “we wanted our patrons back.”
And if you always felt that your ‘fines’ were a nice donation to the library, you can feel free to continue to donate! We will place a jar for donations at the desk.