Library Late Fines Are Not Helping Anyone

Last week, Huffpost wrote about New York Public Library’s discussion around whether to join the ranks of libraries getting rid of late fines. This has been a hot topic of debate amongst public library professionals for years: to fine or not to fine?

The argument has passionate defenders on both sides, and each have good points. In the Huffpost article, the focus is mainly on children, but this debate reaches all ages.

For me—and many other library professionals—it comes down to what the library as an institution stands for. Libraries are public spaces that provide free access to information and other necessary services. Do daily late fines espouse our mission? Or do they make us seem like the shush-ers of old, sticking to rules for their own sake, pettily charging fines over technicalities?

If you ask someone who works in the circulation department how often they have patrons debating charges, I’m sure the count would be innumerable. In many of these cases, the library not only isn’t going to see a penny of the charges, but they are also using precious staff time to constantly discuss them.

Library fees make up such a miniscule portion of library funding. They also require funding to process. So why are so many libraries vehemently sticking to them?

Many people feel that if we didn’t charge daily fines, customers would not be as accountable to bring their items back. However, according to Public Libraries Online, when a Chicago library abolished late fines, they didn’t experience any bad side effects. In fact, it made the community feel much more positively about the library.

Similarly, when a group of Colorado libraries did the same, they found the benefits far outweighed any negative impact. The financial change was “neutral,” they saw a rise in circulation, had 95% of material brought back within a week of the due date, had happier patrons, and, thus, happier staff.

It would seem that most people who return things on time don’t do it because they are going to be charged a fee. They do it because they know there is a due date and that other people need access to those materials.

So, what exactly do daily late fines accomplish? They make people upset. They put up barriers. Rather than encouraging patrons to bring materials back on time, fines ruffle feathers, shame people, and leave them with a bad library experience.

I’m not saying we should indiscriminately leave library patrons up to their own devices when it comes to returning things. People still need to be held accountable when they are using library services. But there are better ways to do this. Ways that aren’t so nit-picky.

For example, a Chicago library suspends your library card if you’re more than two weeks late with an item. It will then bill you for the replacement. I think this is a much better approach. It keeps the patron accountable while still carrying a bit of any financial burden.

For some people, fines are nothing. What’s a few dollars here and there, right? But for children and vulnerable populations, once fees block their accounts, that’s it for them. Should we really be taking services away from the people who need them the most?

I work in a library in a low income community. The people that come in don’t often have another way to access the services or materials we provide. They also have health issues, and transportation issues, and live complicated lives. This can make always returning things on time near impossible. If their account gets blocked, there’s not a lot they can do about it.

Late fees are a huge barrier for this population. You could shake your finger at them and say, “Just bring your items back on time!” but that’s not going to help. It won’t change how they do things, and it doesn’t leave them with a good impression of the library.

We want people to use our services. Don’t we? So why are we stopping them?

I know that library funding and late fees are not a black and white issue. As with anything funded publicly,  a lot of politics and bureaucracy are involved. I do, however, think that more public libraries should seriously consider revising the way they approach late fines and patron accountability.

What do you think?

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