While having a library card typically means borrowing materials free of cost, many of us were made aware young that we would have to pay a fine if we missed the due date. I never gave this much thought growing up. Whether it was returning a library book or a movie from Blockbuster, my family was fairly punctual with regards to returning borrowed/rented items. I started my first library job in August 2017, working at a public library. That September, the library organized an “Amnesty Month,” where patrons could stop by the circulation desk to waive all their late fees and they wouldn’t accrue any additional late fees. Being brand new to the library field, I had a couple questions about fine-free libraries, including: “Wouldn’t the library lose a lot of money without these fines?” Since then, many libraries across the United States have implemented a fine-free borrowing structure. I have also heard opponents to the fine-free libraries and related initiatives voice that fines “teach responsibility.” I think it’s important to address these concerns, in addition to highlighting the implementation of fine-free initiatives and their benefits.
While Blockbuster might have hinged its finances on late fees, libraries do not. For example, in 2018 fines & fees only accounted for ~1% of revenue at the Indianapolis Public Library system (IndyPL). In fact, some libraries report that “when patrons find out their fines are forgiven, they usually donate more than we would have charged them in fines.”The quick answer is that libraries won’t take a large financial hit due to unpaid fines.
So what are the main reasons libraries decide to get rid of late fees? Well, most libraries directly explain the benefits in their communities when announcing the plan to go fine free. IndyPL states that going fine-free helps “erase barriers to Library use that disproportionately affect low-income households.” This is because when patrons begin accumulating fines and fees, they become less inclined to revisit the library. Libraries provide a significant social benefit to low-income patrons, since it allows them to access a wide variety of materials and services without having to spend additional funds. Fines, therefore, create an obstacle to library access that can be harder for those patrons to overcome compared to other borrowers. In 2019, the American Library Association (ALA) passed a “Resolution on Monetary Library Fines as a Form of Social Inequity.” The resolution states that fines go against ALA’s goals, such Policy B.4.2 supporting free access to information. As the Indiana State Library put it, “Please don’t let the $17 in fees you racked up in 1993 deter you from checking out all that’s happening in today’s public libraries.” Overall, fine-free initiatives aim to encourage library use and reduce penalties for overdue items.
Libraries have been utilizing late fees for years, yet even in 1983 a published study by Hansel and Burgin shows that the mean overdue rates for libraries with and without fines were 13.91% and 14.21% respectively. Libraries may still suspend privileges due to overdue and/or missing materials, yet they do so without the added penalty of a monetary fine. Studies, both in public and academic libraries, show that even now fines don’t significantly change how long an item is overdue. With regards to the “teaching responsibility argument,” many libraries are finding that as fines are eliminated or forgiven, older materials are being recovered. Sarah Houghton, Director of the San Rafael Public Library, told American Libraries a few years ago that “it is not the library’s role to teach responsibility to any age group… the library’s role is to encourage lifelong learning, exploration, and innovation.” It is clear that going fine-fee helps libraries achieve this goal, and so far it seems that patrons are displaying the same level of responsibility as before.
Interested in learning where libraries have gone fine-free? Check out this map from the Urban Libraries Council!
David Sye is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Murray State University in southwestern Kentucky. He is liaison for the History, Political Science & Sociology, and Psychology departments, as well as teaching instruction sessions and credit-bearing courses on information literacy. He holds a BA in History from the University of Illinois at Springfield, in addition to an MA in History and MLIS from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to working at Murray State University, he has worked in public libraries and briefly taught middle school social studies.