It’s Time to End Library Fines

I’m proud to unveil a website I’ve been working on for the past few weeks, endlibraryfines.info. It’s a work in progress and I look forward to adding more articles, resources, and features that truly demand the end to these archaic and discriminatory policies. But I feel comfortable enough to put it out to the public so that we (the general public as well as librarians) can have this debate.

As I say when you arrive at the website, library fines are one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time in the world of the libraries. They deny or deter access to library items and services to the most vulnerable populations such as the economically disadvantaged which include our fellow homeless citizens as well as children and teens. This practice is incompatible with the core mission of the modern library: to serve its community in its entirety.

Let’s start with the biggest elephant in the room: library fines are the stick that reminds people to return items on time. The problem with this notion is that there is no evidence to support it. There are no papers within librarian scholarship that support such a conclusion. While my foray is still ongoing (and librarian scholarship is relatively scarce on this topic), I can’t find direct or implied evidence that library fines enforce mindfulness about returning library items. It simply does not exist.

In the articles that I’ve found, I see quite the opposite: that the imposition of library fines deters people from using the library for fear of generating fines they can’t afford. Consider this heartbreaking quote from this New York Times article from 2016:

Adriana Leon, a mother of three, owes $30 for 15 books that she said she dropped off late on a Friday. She said the library incorrectly charged her for being three days late. Now, she no longer borrows books and is teaching her daughter not to borrow, either. “I try to explain to her: ‘Don’t take books out. It’s so expensive,’ ” she said.

This isn’t an isolated loss but possibly two or more generations lost to the library fines practice. That doesn’t include anyone they talk to about their experience with the library. Annette DeFaveri wrote about this phenomena, saying,

If the library does not charge for the damaged book, it loses about $25.00. When the library fails to recognize situations where charging replacement costs means losing library patrons, it loses the opportunity to participate in the life of the patron and the patron’s family. By choosing to make a $25.00 replacement cost more significant than the role the institution can play in the social, developmental, and community life of the family, the library forfeits its role as a community and literacy advocate and leader. It will cost the library more than $25.00 to convince this mother to return to the library. It will cost the library more than $25.00 to persuade this mother that the library is a welcoming community place willing to meet her needs and support her family. It will cost the library more than $25.00 to mount literacy programs aimed at her children, who will not benefit from regular library visits and programs. And when these children are adults, it will cost the library more than $25.00 to convince them that the library is a welcoming and supportive place for their children.
(Emphasis mine.)

Some might argue that fines teach responsibility to which I disagree on the simple basis that it is not our job to teach responsibility. We rightfully refuse to act in the role of a parent when it comes to having children dropped off at our buildings or choosing what items a child should read and this is a logical extension of that refusal. It is not our place to do so and undermines our relationship with the community. (Let’s not forget how much the library helps keep children from the “summer slide” with summer reading programs and other literacy initiatives.) Likewise, adults are responsible for themselves but fines act as an economic barrier for those who have to choose between paying for bus fare or library fines.

In the articles that I reviewed, there was always a fear of people not returning items at all if fines were eliminated. Experience has shown that this fear is unfounded and libraries continue to enjoy a relatively stable return rate similar to their pre-fine days. In fact, libraries have seen a rise in circulation and card signups as people are no longer afraid of getting fines. In other words, the return rate stayed relatively the same with even more items being borrowed.

The next pachyderm in this room is when fines are used to raise revenues for the library. I will freely admit that the finances of libraries are tricky and hyper local. But even so, here are a couple of things to consider.

Library fines are a regressive tax. There are people for whom a couple dollars is just the price they pay for keeping something out later whereas it can make or break someone’s weekly or monthly budget. It is not equitable in the slightest. Again, it denies or deters the people that libraries are trying to reach the most from using the items and resources. Broadly, it could be argued that it acts as a double tax for the same items that were purchased through taxpayer funding and thus a denial of access to publicly funded services. (Since there are grant supported libraries, this would not apply to them).

In addition, if a library needs fine revenue to stay open or to purchase other needed materials, what this says to me is that the library was not properly funded in the first place. It should not be put into a position of preying on the community in order to keep the lights on or the desks staffed. That is a shortcoming of the local governmental body. We as a society have recoiled at the idea of police officers writing tickets to collect fines so that their departments stay open; this is the library world equivalent. It requires action at the local level with the pertinent officials.

We can and must eliminate library fines for everyone in the United States.

Libraries such as Salt Lake City, Baltimore, and Denver have taken the step to eliminating library fines completely. Countless libraries have also started by removing fines and fees for children’s materials which is a good step in this direction as well. Everything counts and the move towards a completely fine free US will require dedication to every step along the way.

One of the most infuriating parts of my research is that this issue has been brought up time and again since the mid 1970s with no real movement. The same rationales have been invoked: responsibility, revenue, and the old canard “we’ve always done it that way”. What I’m advocating here is nothing new and there have been champions along the way upon whom I’ve built this work on. What I hope to do with your help is to finish the work that has been started: getting rid of library fines for everyone in the US.

It’s ambitious but not impossible. And not a task I can do by myself.

Every day over the last few weeks, I’ve been tweeting with the hashtag #endlibraryfines and asking people to take action. The time has come that I call upon everyone to help work with me on this important issue. Here are some ways you can make a difference:

  • Contact your local library and ask if they have a plan for going fine free, either completely or in steps such as removing children and teen fines (if they are fine free, thank them!); or
  • Contact your state library and ask if they have plans for encouraging or guiding libraries to go fine free either completely or in steps. Depending on the state, state libraries can have access to funding, staffing, and research that act as outside support for local libraries; or
  • Contact your state library association and ask they have plans for encouraging or guiding libraries to go fine free either completely or in steps. As the most visible representative of the library community within the state, it can act both as a lobbying force at the state level and coordinate members to come up with solutions that work at the local level; or
  • Contact your local elected officials and ask them to consider funding that would offset a move to going fine free either completely or partially. While the research suggests that going fine free tends to be revenue neutral (the loss of fine money is made up by no longer having the personnel time or technology to track it), you are a constituent with needs that you’d like to see met.

Together, we can do this. Let’s end library fines for everyone.