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Fines aren’t fine: Why libraries are long overdue for a change

Overdue fees stop the people who need the library the most from using it.

A stack of books on a table. // Photo by CCAC North Library

By Kaleigh Carroll

Libraries are your friend.

This long-honored phrase is a staple of the American library, but when was the last time your friend charged you for showing up late?

The dreaded overdue fee is so embedded in our library systems that we often don’t question its relevance or efficacy. That mentality is beginning to change.

Modern libraries are more than just a collection of books; they provide internet access, workshops and other resources that low-income people often depend on most, according to a report from The Financial Justice Project and the San Francisco Library.

While a $10 or even $5 accumulated late fee may seem like a simple payment, it can be an insurmountable financial barrier to some patrons. The fee goes unpaid, and people lose trust in their libraries and access to those vital services. 

Libraries across the country are recognizing this barrier and removing overdue fines with great success. Without late fees barring users, there is often an increase in circulated material and in the number of people using libraries.

Locally, the Whatcom County Library System removed overdue fees in 2019. This allowed 8.6% of previously blocked patrons, 8,422 people, to gain library access again.

Others, like Salt Lake City Public Library, have seen substantial increases in patronage and checked-out material since they removed late fees in 2017. In the first year following their fine-free policy, library staff also signed up 26,000 new cardholders, a 3.5% increase.

While the Whatcom County Library System has not published any data since the initial announcement, the continuation of the fine-free policy and the experiences of other libraries make this policy worth supporting in our community.

Critics of this change bemoan that this will mark the end of responsibility as we know it. They believe books will be returned in a slaughtered state, if at all, and anarchy will reign king over this new lawless and underfunded library system. 

The facts tell a different story.

A survey of the Vancouver Island Universities library system showed that after removing overdue fees, late book returns fell by 4%.

One study from the San Francisco Public Library found that the Salt Lake County Library System, which removed late fees in 2017, saw the number of circulated materials rise by 14% one year after their decision.

The same study, which surveyed seven libraries that had removed late fees, found that all the libraries “reported improvements in patron relationships with the library and increased efficiency of staff time.”

Overdue fines also represent only a small portion of library funding, often less than 1%, so their removal has minimal impact on library budgets.

In 2019, only 0.6% of the Whatcom County Library Systems budget came from collecting overdue fees. Meanwhile, the Salt Lake City Public Library received 0.3% of its budget from these fees.

The need to remove late fees is not just supported by rationale, it’s backed by the philosophy libraries are built on.

The library bill of rights states that libraries should strive to provide equal access to all patrons by “ensuring that all library resources are accessible to all overcoming technological and monetary barriers to access.”

Late fees and fines are in direct opposition to this mission, and libraries have a responsibility to change that. 

Our relationship with libraries should not be based on a monetary fear, but instead, a collective sense of appreciation. It’s time everyone is able to put faith in their community to act responsibly, in their library to make equitable decisions and put their nose in a good book without the worry of a penalty.        

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