Why Are Libraries Eliminating Late Fees?

PC Sweeney


Libraries are known for many things like their large book collections, knowledgeable staff, and sometimes even those dreaded late fees for overdue books. Late fees and fines have been used by libraries for a long time to remind patrons to return library materials on time and while many people believe that fines are another form of revenue these methods have not been as effective as people originally thought.

Many are advocating for fine-free libraries not only because they end up being better for the community it serves but also for the library itself. Libraries across the country are starting to adopt this idea and as the years go by, we’ve seen more and more cities eliminating library fines. From Salt Lake City to London, libraries are adopting fine-free policies. Check out all of the libraries in the world that have made the transition so far!

Curious about all the reasons why libraries are making this choice? Here is why libraries are eliminating late fees:

Higher Book Return Rates

Library fines have actually done a poor job or achieving the original objective of having more books returned on a timely basis. What many have noticed is that once books are gone, fines can encourage them to stay gone. This can be a confusing occurrence but what happens in most cases is that patrons are unable to pay fines and it becomes easier for them to avoid returning the book at all then to be slapped with the fees. When fines aren’t a factor, patrons can comfortably visit the library and bring back any books in their possession without the worry of getting in trouble.

Fine-free policies have worked well when it comes to recovering overdue books. When the San Francisco Public Library held a six-week fine-free period, over 700,000 items were returned including a book that hadn’t been in the library for over a century. Chicago saw a 240 percent increase in overdue materials just in the first month of implementing this idea. And, both libraries also saw an increase in the number of library card renewals and restorations with 5,000 San Francisco Patrons regaining library access and over 400 card renewals in Chicago.

Getting rid of fines wasn’t the only sign that things were better for the community. In the 1980s, libraries in Philadelphia actually doubled library fines to try to get books returned on time. This action achieved the exact opposite of what they expected. In fact, there was no effect on the return rate of materials and the borrowing rate actually decreased. Rather than acting as a way to encourage book returns, fines worked more as a barrier to deter people from coming back.

Fines Aren’t a Reliable Revenue

It’s no secret that libraries are always in need of funding. With the cuts they face from cities and states and the endless calendar of programming and resources they need to provide, libraries are definitely in need of more money. But, library fines are not what is going to close the gap and, in most cases, they end up using more of the library’s resources. In Baltimore and Denver, fines were making up less than a quarter of a percent of the budget. Other cities have expended much more energy and money on fines systems than it is worth with some using the fines received to track down and process more fines.

In San Diego, library staff assessed the amount it took to collect fines compared to the amount that was collected. This number ended up being much higher with the library finding that it spends nearly $1 million a year to collect $675,000 in fines. Nowadays, library patrons can expect to receive multiple alerts and reminders about their overdue materials and have their borrowing placed on pause until they return them.

Patrons Utilize Library Resources More

Patrons that are afraid of paying fines are obviously also not returning to the libraries to use the free resources. This is not what libraries want. In fact, they encourage community members to come and use computers, reference materials, and the staff for questions, job searches, and continuing education. But, it is actually extremely common for community members to avoid the library all together if they have outstanding fees.

Studies have shown that a good percentage of people, especially those in low-income communities, have little to no access to the libraries because of as little as $10 fine limits on their accounts. In the South Side of Chicago, this was 30 percent of the residents in the area. When fines are removed, people feel welcome to rejoin the library community. When the number of returned materials increased after eliminating fines, so did the number of patrons with around 11,000 library users free to come and go as they pleased.

Children also play a huge role in this. These library patrons usually have little to no way to pay off library fines unless they were to ask parents. The Boston Public Library saw this as another barrier to access especially after only receiving 10 percent of the $250,000 owed to them by those under 18 in the community. The library decided to join the other 5% of libraries with fine-free policies and stopped charging minors late fees.

Librarians Have More Time for the Community

Librarians are also affected by fines systems. The time that is spent on tracking down fines could actually be spent on tasks that they would much rather focus on and those geared towards helping the community. Collecting fines is not only time-consuming, but it can become a stressful process for librarians when it comes to blocking accounts that owe fees and stopping patrons from checking out books. Staff that are spending more time on applying penalties and collecting fines are spending needless time, $1 million worth in San Francisco’s case, on tasks that aren’t benefiting anyone.

Improve Negative Associations With Libraries

Libraries are places in the community where everyone should feel welcomed and safe. When fines are associated with the use of the library, patrons begin to associate negative feelings and experiences with the library. Take, for example, children that get berated by parents for forgetting library books or non-English speakers who struggle to communicate with staff to check out new materials when there is a block on their account. These situations can be embarrassing for those involved and it makes the library an uncomfortable place to visit, discouraging people from returning.

Libraries Going Fine-Free

Libraries everywhere are now offering community members a clean slate when it comes to borrowing. In lieu of a fines system, libraries are also becoming more creative with ideas to encourage people to return materials like using food donations in exchange for fine forgiveness, allowing young people to pay fines off through reading, or implementing a fine-free period before charging the price of the book. There are plenty of reasons for libraries to go fine-free and each community library has their own story behind their decisions. You can use this interactive map created by a research fellow at the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) to explore the stories behind each fine-free library.



PC Sweeney

Libraries, Politics, Sailing! EveryLibrary Political director, award winning political consultant, USCG MMC Captain