Is It Finally Time For Library Fines To Be Over?

An image of a paper due date slip, with stamped due dates ranging from 1983 to 2002.

Library due date slip (Wikicommons)

An interesting question arose on the library listserv I subscribe to, and I’d love to hear various people’s input on it. How do you feel about public libraries going fine free? That is, libraries no longer charging fines for overdue books and lost/missing items?

On one hand, the revenue from fines help keep the library running, although I’d personally like to see a breakdown of how the revenue streams actually fit into a library’s budget, and it reflects a need to have patrons respect the time and work put into keeping the collection up to date and not filled with ragged, torn books. Also, some libraries use the fine system to keep people above a certain limit of money due off of community computers, to reflect that their refusal to pay their fines have restricted all of their library rights, not just borrowing books.

On the other hand, as many members of the listserv pointed out, libraries are often used by the disenfranchised and the low-income. Not everyone can afford to pay a fine, and not everyone loses a book or keeps a book past its due date out of malice. Having a fine system does not encourage that patron subset to return to the library, and it looks like it’s a pretty big patron subset to lose.

Plus, barring usage of computer systems due to outstanding fines can hurt people who use the library computers to find jobs, do work, and other tasks that they may not be able to do at home, either because they don’t have a home computer or they are not in a good home situation to freely use one.

There’s definitely nuanced shades of discussion to be found between these two positions, including how computer software impacts computer policy and that one’s policy also depends on your actual unique patron base, but I also have to admit that the idea of a library without fines was super interesting the first time I read about it. One library that does this is Oak Park Public Library in Oak Park, IL, since June of this year. Naturally, that’s too soon to tell how successful this method has been for them, but it looks like they have a very thorough, accessible breakdown of how the no fine policy works. Note: they still suspend library privileges in certain cases, but there’s no charging of fines.

There is also an article from 2006 in the Christian Science Monitor asking if the lifting of library fines as a practice is (wait for it) overdue. I’m amazed at the big number of revenue lost from one library no longer charging fines, but this also could be a unique case; I’m sure not every library collects the same amount of patron fines as their neighbors, and that number likely fluctuates every fiscal year or so.

It also points out the ever-present outside pressure from online services like Netflix, which lets users keep items as long as they want, although Netflix users only get their money’s worth if they keep the discs in rotation (unless you really want to pay to keep one disc at home for months at a time, which is totally your right, of course!).

If you are a general library patron, how would you feel if your library abolished fines? If you are in the library field, do you think fines are necessary or not?

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