Overdue Fees: Barriers to Access in School Libraries

Information Access, Policies, School Libraries

By: April Dawkins

One month into a new position as a university faculty member, I’m working with future school librarians. This week we are talking about policies. All kinds of policies – scheduling, privacy, internet usage, copyright, access, Dewey v Genre and overdue books. I keep asking my students to reflect on the decisions they are making. Are they doing things just because it’s the way it has always been done or do they really have a rationale? Is this decision (policy, program) going to achieve what they think it will? How will they know?

When discussing policy issues, I think we need to truly think about the decisions we make based on conflicting motives. An important one in school libraries is teaching responsibility versus instilling a love of reading. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about barriers to access for students in school libraries.

In my previous school district, all of the school libraries charged overdue fines (5 cents per day). But it really wasn’t something we ever talked about. The librarian in each school decided what he/she wanted to do with the fines. In my library, the funds were used to pay conference expenses for the librarians and if any money was left, it went into replacement costs of lost materials. Ten years ago, I was really shocked when I moved to a new school district, and the district level lead librarians made the decision to cease charging overdue fines. However, students would be responsible for replacing lost books (at the original purchase cost). At first, I was really unhappy with this decision, but after talking with others and discussing their rationale, I have to admit I supported the decision based on increasing student access. Overdue fines had become a barrier to access. Many schools in the district would not allow further checkouts of materials while a student had a fine on their account or an overdue book. This limited students’ reading and made them really dislike the library.

For those who wished to continue fines, they had two reasonable arguments. The main one being that one of our duties in schools was to help students learn about responsibility. Additionally, some argued that doing away with fines meant that students would keep out materials indefinitely which then limited other students’ access to them. A less reasonable argument was the discussion around fines as a source of income for libraries in order to purchase new materials. This argument highlights a bigger problem: funding of school library materials today. Either there is little to no budgeted money for new materials or new materials are purchased only through gifts, grants, book fairs, and fines or fees.

So, how can we teach responsibility without restricting access to library materials? Consider using positive reinforcement techniques when students act responsibly by returning materials on time. You might use a rewards system by allowing a student to check out more than the usual maximum number of books. If students had overdue items in my library, I still allowed checkout of new materials; however, I did create a block in the system that required me to override to allow additional items to be checked out. This allowed me the opportunity to speak with students individually about returning their overdue items.

And what do you do if your administration won’t budge about charging overdue fines? If you have to continue levying overdue fines, consider alternative means to paying them off – through service, through a donation drive, through a waiver process.

Want to know more about issues related to fines in libraries? Check out these additional resources:


April DawkinsApril Dawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In May 2017, April completed her PhD at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation was understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for fifteen years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.


  • Well said April! Consider the cost of an overdue/lost library book against a child who grows up with no books to read. We should do everything in our power to allow student access to books. As Dr. Gail Dickinson would say, the book we know is not being read is the one sitting on the library shelf.

  • As me, I’m a senior in highschool and freshman year I turned in 2 books late. Now I’m being charged $25 and I can’t afford it. I brought my situation up to the administration and they were not understanding nor empathic. They are telling me that walking is a privilege and that I don’t have to. I mean They never mentioned this, they just dumped it on us last minute to steal for our piggy banks.

  • I am a grandmother Who has an Autistic granddaughter. My daughter borrowed many books but is so busy with her daughter she just neglected not to bring the books back. I told her that you have a Reprieve program or a day when you except all books at no charge. If this is so I will personally take them back to you. She lives an hour away from me I know her hands are full. Every day she worries what will that day bring for her daughter in school.

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