17 October 2019

Library "late fees" are now relics of the past

I encountered a discussion of this topic in CityLab:
Chicago libraries will no longer collect late fees starting this month, becoming the largest public library system in the U.S. to do away with overdue fines. The city is also erasing all currently outstanding fees, which is good news to the more than 343,000 cardholders whose borrowing privileges have been revoked for accruing at least $10 in unpaid fines.

Chicago is one of a growing number of cities trying to make access to libraries more equitable. Its own data revealed that one in three cardholders in the public library’s south district, where many of the communities are of color and living in poverty, cannot check out books. That’s compared to one in six people in the wealthier north district. It’s likely that many who have unpaid fines fail to pay them because they don’t have the disposable income to do so...

“Overdue fines are not distinguishing between people who are responsible and who are not,” says Rogers. “They're distinguishing between people who can and cannot use money to overcome a common oversight.”..

He adds that research going as far back as the 1970s shows fears that eliminating fines will deteriorate people’s sense of civic responsibility to return books on time are unfounded....

For many libraries, fines make up just a small share of their operating budget. The Chicago Sun Times reports the Chicago Public Library system collects $875,000 annually in fines, which is not an insignificant amount. But the city says late fines constitute less than 1 percent of the library’s total budget.
The Madison, Wisconsin library system has been fine-free for quite a while now [photo].   Over the years TYWKIWDBI has accrued an uncommon number of librarians and library staff as readers; I'd be pleased to hear your comments and experiences on the subject.


  1. I have not studied the subject, but I suspect this policy would be a bad idea at my college library. We have many very valuable circulating items, such as textbooks priced at hundreds of dollars each and electronic gadgets.

    But I have noticed in recent years that I am often reflexively resistant to change. Sometimes the library director has proceeded with changes against my advice and she proved to be correct and I proved to be wrong. So I would be open to the idea of going fine-free.

    1. It is a somewhat strange thing to stop having overdue fines - it makes the borrowing period arbitrary and could reduce turnaround of books, but maybe there are ways around that. I think removing late fines doesn't always include replacing lost or damaged books? You could also have a deposit or other restriction for electronics. When I was studying having an unpaid library fine stopped you from being able to graduate, which was a pretty extreme deterrent.

  2. I am a librarian in a county library system in California and we have recently gone fine-free. It was a similar proportion of the budget to the Chicago system, and I have to say that it has been very welcome. There are still fines for lost and damaged books, but not having to deal with late fines has been great. I hated having to deal with a cash register, or hand-writing a receipt for a lost item. I haven't seen any data yet, but I don't feel like it has drastically changed the time that books are out. I feel very lucky to work in a library because unlike a store, all the patrons are happy to come in (generally) and are very appreciative of the services and books that we offer.

    1. I quite agree regarding the "hassle factor." I never minded paying an overdue fee, which I considered money going to a good cause. But I did mind having to interrupt a librarian sitting at his desk processing material. I'm sure they are more productive now, not having to make change for a dollar several times a day.

  3. Dublin City Library, where m'daughter works, went this route in Jan 2019.
    It's like the Freakonomics story about introducing fines for late pick-up in creches
    Counterintuitively, this plan increased the rate of bad manners. Parents had been given a legitimised way [buying time] of damping their sense of empathy for the creche workers . . . who also wanted to get home at the end of a long day.

  4. People seem to forget that library books (and items) are for everyone, not just for one person to borrow and keep for six months while others wait and wait to get that item. Fines are one way of reminding those borrow-and-forget-ers of that.

    Some libraries will call patrons if they keep an item for too long and there are others waiting for that item.

  5. I'm not a librarian or a staff member, but I do patronize my local branch library weekly. It may be a good idea to drop the idea of fines for late books or material, but what about items which are lost or damaged? One still has to pay for that.
    There have been several times I'd put a hold on a book already checked out to another and which I want to read, only to discover that it is "lost." (The library here automatically renews materials for you; however some borrowers will lose books and never notify the library of that.)


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