Are Overdue Fines Worth It?

There has been a lot of debate recently in the library world about the effectiveness and necessity of overdue fines at public libraries. More and more libraries have started conversations of what it would look like to do away with overdue fines. Would it change the behavioral patterns of patrons for better or worse? Are overdue fines really worth it?

Most people have a story from their childhood where they forgot to return some books from the library, and their parents made them pay for the overdue fine themselves. I personally remember checking out a book and not being able to find it after receiving an overdue notice in the mail. I looked “everywhere” in the house (as kids always do), and just could not find it anywhere. At that point, I decided that I would never ever ever return to the library again and hence, wouldn’t have to pay for the book I had lost within the confines of my own home. A few weeks later while on a playdate with one of my friends, her mother took us to the library and I was absolutely petrified to show my face in the building, much less hand over my library card to the worker at the circulation desk. After much convincing and assurance from my friends’ mom that she would pay whatever fine I had on my account, I decided to brave my fears and check out the book I wanted. To my surprise there were no fines as my mom had either found and returned the book for me, or had already taken care of the cost to replace it. Unfortunately, not all kids escape the grips of library overdue fines as easily and as luckily as I did. Many times those experiences as a child leave lasting life-long impacts on people’s perception and use of their public library.

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What is the purpose of overdue fines?

Overdue fines encourage patrons to use library materials in a responsible and considerate matter. Library items are shared by the community and should be returned in a timely fashion to ensure everyone has an opportunity to borrow those items. I have heard of fines ranging from 10 cents up to $3 per day varying by item (book, DVD, audiobook, etc.) and library.

Additionally, fines can be used to bolster the library’s annual budget. According to a survey taken by the Library Journal of 454 libraries in the US in 2017, about 75% of libraries put the money acquired from overdue fines toward their general fund. 15% reported that funds go to purchasing or repairing materials, 5% that the money goes to programming, and 6% said that overdue fines go back into the city or county general fund.


What’s the big deal?

So we all knew before reading this article that most libraries have overdue fines. For many of us, this is not an issue. We take out books, return them when we can, and if they’re overdue, we pay the small fine and continue using our library cards for free. But what about those families that can’t afford to pay? What about those kids that have a hard time at home with their parents or guardians and can’t get to the library to return their books on time? Most libraries have a policy that suspends a patron’s library card account if there are too many fines accumulated. At the library I used to work at, this threshold was $5.

Overdue fines inhibit the principal of universal access to information that the public library stands for as a government-funded institution. There are many understandable and uncontrollable circumstances in which patrons are unable to return their books on time. One story from the director of the New York Public Library stood out to me in particular.

“At our 125th Street Library in Harlem, for instance, a young mother tried to check out a wi-fi hotspot so her daughter could do her homework. Homeless, the family couldn’t afford broadband internet, and her daughter’s grades suffered. Unfortunately, her library card was blocked, not because the family was irresponsible, but because one night, they were abruptly moved from one shelter to another, and in their haste to leave, they left behind a library book and DVD. The fines accumulated quickly, and without any way to pay them, their only hope for internet access was no longer available.”

Even in more common situations for a small-town library, overdue fines can really take a toll on families. Imagine a young mom checks out 45 picture books for her two small children.  Life is busy and she loses track of time and ends up returning them 3 days late. Even at the small fine of 10 cents per day, this adds up to $13.50. At my local library, the daily fine is 25 cents per day, meaning she would owe $33.75. On a tight budget, this could be a really tough unexpected payment to come to terms with. Imagine if this happens more times than not for the same mom and kids. Eventually, she’s not going to be able to afford going to the library, and might intentionally leave her account suspended so her children can’t check out anymore books.  

There are so many similar stories that happen daily at public libraries around the country. Often, it is the patrons that use and need the services the library offers the most that end up being excluded for financial reasons. For a place that aims to include and serve everyone in the community, these long established policies regarding overdue fines just do not add up.

A sign outside of a library that says "Welcome to Volunteer away your fines check in here".

What’s the solution?

In a perfect world, no libraries would have overdue fines and patrons would take responsibility seriously enough to return their items in a timely manner. However, we all know this world isn’t perfect. In their survey, the Library Journal found out that several libraries across the country were getting creative in order to reduce or eliminate the amount of fines being issued to their patrons. The director of the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, NY said this regarding eliminating overdue fines: “folks who are dilatory about returns have not changed their habits, but the interaction at the circulation desk is much less fraught. My staff is not put in the position of punishing those who return items late, and we have a donation box for people who still have a need to pay a fine.” Many libraries who have nixed fines but are suffering with the lost money for their budget have kept a donation box at their circulation desk for people who want to “clear their conscience” when they return a book overdue.

In addition, the Library Journal found that 61% of libraries offer ways other than monetary payment to pay off fines. This includes volunteering, food drives, giving children and teens the opportunity to “read down” their fines, donations in the amount of a certain percentage of accrued fines, and amnesty programs. In 2017, some major public library systems offered an amnesty period where patrons could return overdue items and their fines would be waived. The results were pretty incredible. “…in recent amnesty programs, Chicago Public Library received at least 20,000 returned items, worth roughly $500,000; Los Angeles Public Library received 64,633 books, and 13,701 patrons had fines forgiven and accounts unblocked. Indeed, the San Francisco Public Library recently held a six-week amnesty and recovered 699,563 overdue items, including 12,246 items that were more than 60 days past due.” Not only did these amnesty periods allow patrons to recover access to their accounts, but it brought back thousands of items that would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace… a win-win for everyone involved in my eyes.

On the other hand, there are definitely foreseeable obstacles with eliminating fines. What about high-demand items that have a lot of holds? If patrons can keep this item without any consequences, this could create an unfair environment for patrons who are on the hold list and return their items on time. Changing the overdue fines policy could potentially cause a change of behavior from patrons by not actively encouraging timely responsibility with library items. The opposing viewpoint might say that the library is already founded on equality and because everyone has the same opportunity to obtain and use their library card at the start, eliminating fines would tilt the policies in favor of low-income or irresponsible patrons instead of increasing accessibility.

There are many ways libraries can eliminate overdue fines, and I honestly think every public library would be doing a disservice to their patrons by not at least considering the notion. That is my view of the matter, but I’m curious to know what all of you think… Is reducing or eliminating overdue fines a good idea in your eyes? Would it increase your use or interaction with the library? Do you think people would abuse the system if fines are not there to keep people in check? Let me know your thoughts!




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