We Wanted Our Patrons Back — Public Libraries Scrap Late Fines

From National Public Radio:

For nearly a decade, Diana Ramirez hadn’t been able to take a book home from the San Diego Public Library. Her borrowing privileges were suspended, she was told, because of a mere $10 in late fees, an amount that had grown to $30 over the years.

Ramirez, who is now 23 and stays in Tijuana with her mother, attends an alternative education program in San Diego that helps students earn high school diplomas. To her, the debt she owed to the library system was an onerous sum. Even worse, it removed a critical resource from her life.

“I felt disappointed in myself because I wasn’t able to check out books,” Ramirez said. “I wasn’t able to use the computers for doing my homework or filling out job applications. I didn’t own a computer, so the library was my only option to access a computer.”

In April, Ramirez finally caught a break. The San Diego Public Library wiped out all outstanding late fines for patrons, a move that followed the library system’s decision to end its overdue fines. Ramirez was among the more than 130,000 beneficiaries of the policy shift, cardholders whose library accounts were newly cleared of debt.

. . . .

The changes were enacted after a city study revealed that nearly half of the library’s patrons whose accounts were blocked as a result of late fees lived in two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “I never realized it impacted them to that extent,” said Misty Jones, the city’s library director.

. . . .

“Library users with limited income tend to stay away from libraries because they may be afraid of incurring debt,” said Ramiro Salazar, president of the [American Library Association’s] public library division. “It stands to reason these same users will also stay away if they have already incurred a fine simply because they don’t have the money to pay the fine.”

Lifting fines has had a surprising dual effect: More patrons are returning to the library, with their late materials in hand. Chicago saw a 240% increase in return of materials within three weeks of implementing its fine-free policy last month. The library system also had 400 more card renewals compared with that time last year.

. . . .

According to Chicago Public Library’s internal analysis, some 30% of people living on the South Side of Chicago couldn’t check out materials because they had reached the $10 fine limit for overdue materials. That ratio, however, dropped roughly 15% among cardholders on the more affluent North Side. Nearly a quarter of blocked accounts belonged to children under 14.

Having library fines stand in the way of people searching for jobs and social services “just seemed counterintuitive to us,” Telli said.

. . . .

Mitchell acknowledged that some people are not able to easily return books on time, but fears libraries will be shortchanged.

“The library deserves as much money as it can muster,” he said.

Some libraries have taken that philosophy to extremes. In November, a woman in southern Michigan faced criminal charges and possible jail time for not returning two books to the Charlotte Community Library.

After a national outcry, prosecutors dropped the charges. While library advocates say there is a real difference between fine forgiveness and failing to return a book, the case underlines the tensions libraries face between balancing patron accommodation and the need for deterrence.

And add this complicating factor to the equation: The fact that many libraries can’t afford to collect most of the fines they’re owed.

. . . .

Some libraries have successfully lured back patrons by offering fine-forgiveness days. During a 2017 amnesty campaign in San Francisco, the public library recovered nearly 700,000 of its items over six weeks and restored the accounts of more than 5,000 patrons. The recouped materials included a long-lost copy of F. Hopkins Smith’s Forty Minutes Late — which, despite its title, was a century overdue.

Link to the rest at NPR

PG acknowledges that he posted about an article on the same topic that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, but thought this was an important and interesting trend.

2 thoughts on “We Wanted Our Patrons Back — Public Libraries Scrap Late Fines”

  1. Some forty years ago, I worked for a short time at the circulation desk of a university library. Once a quarter we went through the drill of billing students with fines and informing them that they would not get their grades until they paid up. Stuffing and addressing bills was excruciatingly boring, but gave me some needed overtime. The circulation manager was a hardheaded former business owner and bookkeeper, not your usual librarian. She hated to pay overtime. So she performed a cost/benefit analysis, determining that it was costing her more to collect fines than the fines recieved. She petitioned the powers to quit collecting fines as a cost reduction, but was denied for reasons I never heard.

    Fast forward to today. Now I’m a public library trustee. We’re abolishing fines 1 Jan 2020. Good riddance. I didn’t waste our finance department’s time by asking for an audit of the cost of fine collection, but the amount we collect is so small, getting rid of fines is scarcely detectable in our 2020 budget and I am sure we’ll make it up by freeing staff time, our largest expense. I’m glad we are quitting wasting taxpayer dollars on something contrary to our mission of public service.

    Lest anyone worry, we are still charging for replacement of unreturned materials, just no fine for returning items late. Our policy authorizes managers to waive replacement fees under exceptional circumstances, like floods.

  2. PG– I tried to contact you via the Contact, but hit a 403.
    I hate communicate privately via an open channel, but email me via marvwaschke in the comcast.net domain to discuss what I am afraid is happening to your site, if you like.

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