Colorado State Library staff began researching this topic when we heard heartbreaking stories from parents in low income households who were reluctant to check out books for their young children because they didn’t know when they could get back to the library to return the books and couldn’t afford the overdue fines; other stories involved parents who did check out books for their young children, but immediately placed them high on a shelf where their kids couldn’t reach them lest they lose them, and didn’t let their kids touch the books even during reading times so that the kids wouldn’t damage them, because they couldn’t afford to replace them. This is of course the opposite of what we want to happen!
Thus is 2016, we began researching why libraries charge fines and replacement fees, and what the impact this has on patrons and potential patrons.
First, some definitions. Fines are the charges you incur if you return materials late, which accrue each day until you return your materials. They are typically small; a 2017 Library Journal article reported they average around 17 cents a day. But they do add up. Many libraries will, at some point, block your account if you haven’t paid the fines. Fees for lost or damaged books are what you pay if you damage or lose a book and it needs to be replaced.
Many libraries charge overdue fines because of three main assumptions:
- Fines bring back materials faster (and at all)
- Fines generate revenue for the library
- Fines teach responsibility
Published research and a growing amount of recent evidence show that, actually, none of these assumptions are true—at all!
Overdue fines do, though, have a significant impact on patrons:
- Overdue fines go against libraries’ missions to provide equitable services because fines disproportionately affect low-income residents, who are more likely to experience financial burdens, restrictive schedules, and lack of transportation that make it difficult to visit the library.
- Charging fines and replacement fees creates a barrier to accessing reading materials, especially for children, as parents can be reluctant to check out materials for their children for fear of incurring fines and fees
- Patrons with high overdue fines often have their library cards blocked. Libraries that stop charging late fines have welcomed back patrons who were barred from borrowing because of blocked accounts, issued cards to brand new borrowers, and tracked an increase in circulation in many instances.
For these reasons, more and more libraries around the country—and the world—are eliminating fines. Take a look at the impressive map below noting libraries that have gone partially or totally fine-free!
Frequently Asked Questions
If we get rid of fines at our library, will our materials come back more slowly? And will they come back at all?
Research and lots of recent experience from libraries that have recently gone fine-free show that overdue fines do not affect how fast people bring back books; return rates are THE SAME before and after libraries go fine-free. And some libraries get MORE materials back after going fine-free because of 2 reasons:
- Some people are ashamed to bring items back late and have to face library staff to pay a fine, and
- Some people can’t afford to pay the fine, so they figure why bother bringing the stuff back?
Take a look at these recent results:
In Colorado, High Plains Library District removed fines on everything except DVDs. They tracked their circulation and after six months and found that 95% of materials were being returned within one week of when they were due. They found no increase in “patron disappoints” (the scenario where someone has put a hold on an item and is waiting for the previous borrower to return it).
St. Paul Public Library (MN), Gleason Public Library (IL), and San Rafael Public Library (CA) libraries reported hold times (a good measure of late returns) were virtually unchanged after eliminating fines. Milton Public Library (VT) saw its on-time return rates actually increase after fine elimination!
The Salt Lake City Library (UT) found that materials returned late decreased from 9% with overdue fines in place to 4% after ditching fines. They did have longer hold times after going fine-free, but attributed it to more people checking out items as the number of unique borrowers in the system increased by more than 10% during that same time.
Vernon Public Library (IL) saw the average number of days an item is overdue fall 42% once it eliminated fines.
Martin Public Library (TN), since eliminating fines, reports, “We do not lose as many items – our loss rate is less than 1%. – Our patrons return their items on a more timely basis. In fact approx. 95 percent of materials are returned within a week of their due date. – We have more patrons return to using the library. They are no longer ashamed to come to the library because of having items that were late. – There has been a 60% drop in overdue items from the time that we started this in 2005. At that time we had thousands of overdue items. That year we started mailing reminders and informed our patrons that fines had been discontinued.”
How much will our library lose in revenue if we eliminate fines?
First, find out how much revenue your library actually brings in from library fines (look just at funds from fines, not fees for lost/damaged books and other fees). Research shows that no matter the size and budget of the library, in most cases, fines account for only about 1% on average of a public library’s total operating budget. So to start out, revenue from fines may be less than you (or your governing authority) expect. Second, take into account all the costs associated with collecting all those dimes and quarters; it’s expensive! Postage to send overdue notices, credit card fees, collection agency costs, and especially staff time all add up. Many libraries that go fine free track the revenue from fines vs. collection costs and find that it ends up costing as much to collect the fines than they’re bringing in–and sometimes it even costs MORE than they’re bringing in.
Also, with more e-materials circulating virtually that don’t have overdue fines, and with the increasingly popular autorenewal service, revenue from fines has gradually been decreasing in libraries worldwide.
Check out all these recent findings:
Using the assumption of one minute per transaction and actual data on the number of annual payment transactions, the San Diego Public Library estimated it was spending more than $1 million per year in fine collection while only bringing in $600,000. Similarly, the Vernon Area Public Library (IL) eliminated overdue fines in 2014, in part because it estimated that the cost of staff time required to collect and process overdue fines exceeded the amount of money coming in from fines.
A 2016 study of academic libraries found that in many libraries the costs of collection equaled the income generated by overdue fines, resulting in no actual net revenue.
High Plains Library District (CO) eliminated overdue fines in 2015 and found the move to be cost neutral. The library was able to eliminate costly credit card technology on their self-check machines and save a great deal of staff time.
What about the board members/elected officials/community members who complain that fine-free libraries aren’t doing their part in teaching responsibility, and just let people be unaccountable for keeping books a long time–or forever?
This is a very common concern and one based in the long tradition of libraries charging fines.One answer is that young children and even many teens cannot get to the library on their own to return materials on time. It is the parents that have to do that. So why should kids be penalized, and how is that teaching them responsibility?
Another answer has to do with the core mission of libraries. San Francisco Public Library recently released a white paper advocating for eliminating late fines that addressed this “teaching responsibility.” They argued that if the library does have a role in teaching public responsibility, it must do so in a way that does not interfere with its mission. From their white paper: “Responsibility is an important value for individuals and communities to practice, but not one that permits the library to overlook its essential function. If there is a conflict between teaching responsibility and ensuring equal access, the library is duty-bound to prioritize equal access.”
Many libraries stress to their governing bodies and communities that patrons will still be charged for materials that they don’t return, so there’s still accountability in place; going fine-free is definitely not giving away library materials or letting patrons keep them for months on end, but rather providing a much more equitable service model.
What are the most compelling reasons to get rid of fines?
A core mission of libraries is to provide equitable service to all residents in their communities. Overdue fines go against that mission by disproportionately affecting residents in low-income households the most. These patrons may have transportation challenges that keep them from getting to the library regularly. They may work multiple jobs, be single parents, or have unstable housing, all leaving them with limited time to visit the library. Thus, these patrons are most likely to have library cards blocked due to high fines, and these patrons–the very residents that need access to library collections the most–are less likely to check out materials. Check out these statistics:
At the St. Paul Public Library (MN), while 19% of cardholders are blocked system-wide, 34% of cards are blocked in one of the lowest income neighborhoods.
At the Salt Lake City Public Library (UT), several branches serving lower-income communities accounted for about 14% of materials checked out but 30% of blocked cards.
In San Francisco, overdue fines disproportionately affect low-income communities, African American communities, and communities without college degrees. Patrons across all branches accrue fines at similar rates, but in locations serving these three communities, fine totals are higher and account suspension is more common. For instance, 11.2% of adult cardholders in the Bayview branch are blocked from using the library due exclusively to overdue fines (not because of lost or unreturned items), significantly more than in any other location and more than three times as many as in high-income areas of San Francisco.
Is there a way we can test out being fine free before going all in?
Yes; many libraries have had success eliminating fines on children’s (sometimes including young adult) materials for a year, collecting data, seeing the success and lack of all of those feared negative effects, and then using this new knowledge to confidently eliminating all fines. This can help the library administration make a compelling case to its governing body that actually none of those assumed negative effects will occur.
We provide fine amnesty days (a period when patrons can return materials without having to pay overdue fines), food-for-fines days (patrons can bring in nonperishable food that we donate to a food bank and in exchange we erase some of their fines/fees), and let kids read down their fines (kids can read in the library and get their fines/fees reduced). These programs help our patrons who can’t afford fines already; why take the next step and go entirely fine free?
Temporary programs like these also place burdens on the very patrons most affected by overdue fines. A single parent with transportation challenges may not be able to get to the library during a fine amnesty week, or to drive a child to the library and wait for an hour while she reads to lower fines. Food drives, in particular, are not helpful to patrons with financial difficulties–does the library really want parents to bring canned food to the library rather than stocking their own kitchen to feed their family? These programs often don’t work to help the very people that need fine-free access to library materials the most.
I’d love to make our library fine-free but am having trouble convincing my governing authority. How can I make a compelling argument?
First, gather the facts for your library. How much of your operating budget comes from fines (separate from lost/damaged book fees)? How many patron cards are blocked due to fines (again, separate from fees)? If you can tell from your data, are there more cards blocked in lower-income zip codes in the community you serve? Has the money your library takes in from fines decreased over the last 10 years? Next, gather stories from your patrons–and non-patrons–about how fines affect them. Do fines keep them from checking out all the materials they’d like to borrow? How would their borrowing habits change if your library no longer charged fines?
Then, compile these into a visual format. Here’s a great example from the St. Paul Public Library: https://tinyurl.com/yxvot94g. Armed with the visual and some solid talking points, present the pitch to your governing body.
How many libraries are fine-free? How can I find one in a community similar to ours?
Check out this map of libraries around the world that are at least partially fine-free: https://endlibraryfines.info/fine-free-library-map/. While not a comprehensive list (we add libraries as we become aware that they’re fine-free), it’s a great and fast-growing list that can provide a snapshot of libraries in a wide variety of communities that are partially or fully fine-free.Thus far the vast majority of the libraries on the map are public libraries, but there are also a growing number of academic and K-12 libraries that are going fine-free as well!
Will our circulation and number of cardholders go up if our library goes fine free?
Yes, it’s very likely! Another compelling reason is that eliminating fines tends to increase circulation and library cardholders: The Salt Lake City Public Library had a 10% increase in both circulation and unique borrowers in one year after eliminating fines.
San Rafael Public Library (CA) reported an increase in circulation of their children’s materials and a 40% increase in youth borrowers after dropping late fines for children’s materials.
High Plains Library District (CO)’s children’s circulation increased 16% in the year after going fine free.