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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – August 2021

Equitable access has been a core principle of publicly-funded library service for going on two centuries. For well over a decade, an ever-growing number of libraries have come to recognize that fines for overdue materials can pose a barrier to equity, and have responded by eliminating those fines. American Library Association (ALA), local and national news media, and others have taken notice and championed and celebrated this change.

ALA’s 2019 Resolution on Monetary Library Fines as a Form of Social Inequity urges libraries to, “scrutinize their practices of imposing fines on library patrons and actively move towards eliminating them.” It also urges that libraries’ governing bodies, “strengthen funding support for libraries so they are not dependent on monetary fines as a necessary source of revenue.” The succinct resolution considers fines from multiple perspectives, including the user, their library usage, and the staff time required to handle fines. It emphasizes how fines create not only, “an economic barrier to library materials and services,” but also, “a barrier in public relations.”

As an example of both the economic and relational barriers overdue fines can create, a 2019 National Public Radio (NPR) story on libraries eliminating overdue fines points to work in large cities including Boston, Chicago, and San Diego, showing that fines, “dis-proportionally deter low-income residents and children” from using libraries. When someone can’t pay a fine, that fine can grow and cause their borrowing privileges and access to other services such as library public computers to be blocked. Frequently, this punitive lack of access has a negative impact on people who rely on the library the most, disconnecting them from their library and eliciting shame.

Following other writing on eliminating overdue fines since the 1980s, Sabrina Unrein, Library Associate at Vail Public Library (CO) and Syracuse University School of Information Studies graduate, published an excellent research study entitled, Overdue Fines: Advantages, Disadvantages, and How Eliminating Them Can Benefit Public Libraries in April, 2020 (as part of Syracuse’s iSchool Public Libraries Initiative). The study deconstructs arguments in favor of keeping library fines, posits arguments in favor of eliminating fines, and includes survey data from 15 public libraries, closing with some alternatives to completely eliminating fines.

Some key findings in the paper arguing against fines include:

  • the traditional idea that fines ensure that materials are returned on time doesn’t square with libraries’ experience in Chicago, Columbus (OH), northern Colorado, Salt Lake City, and elsewhere, where those who had eliminated fines saw book return rates rise and overdues decline (Unrein found that, “there is a lack of evidence to support library fines as effective tools for getting patrons to return items on time” [p. 17])
  • though some suggest that fines teach citizens to be civically responsible, “removing fines does not mean removing all consequences … for not returning library materials. … patrons who fail to return items within a given time frame will be charged for the replacement of the missing items. The replacement fee is waived when the item is returned, even if it is past its due date. The item was ultimately returned, so there is no need to punish the patron. Therefore, removing overdue fines is meant to offer more flexibility … and does not remove all responsibility from patrons.” (p. 11)
  • the idea that fines supplement library budgets varies greatly in practice, as fine revenue accounts for very small proportions of larger libraries’ operating budget:
    • 2% for San Francisco Public Library (FY2017-2018)
    • 3% for Seattle Public Library (2019)
    • .1% for Detroit Public Library System (2018)

Unrein’s arguments for eliminating fines include: a lack of evidence that fines are effective; fines dis-proportionally affect lower-income people; fines are punitive and do not teach people how to be better citizens ultimately; library users who don’t fear the possibility of garnering fines use the library more; and that users and staff will have better relationships, with less conflict around fine collection and enforcement.

In a companion piece to her study, Unrein also summarizes Five Unexpected Benefits of Eliminating Library Fines:

  1. Librarians and staff can provide better service when not worried about repercussions of issuing and collecting fines.
  2. Being fine-free is more aligned with the library’s real mission, insofar as libraries value providing equitable access to information to all and removing barriers.
  3. Libraries see an increase in items returned, as staff are no longer anxious or fearful about enforcing fines and users are no longer afraid of being reprimanded for late returns.
  4. Libraries can use their resources better in terms of serving users and reallocating staff time spent on fines toward other more valuable work.
  5. Eliminating fines can lead to greater appreciation for the library, as well as good PR.

To that last benefit, a quick search shows many examples of news stories about libraries going fine-free, including for the Bay County Library System (MI), Brownstown Public Library (IN), Indianapolis Public Library (IndyPL; IN), Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL; MI), multiple libraries in Muskegon (MI), and several others (including one of the most recent, the Capital Area District Library [CADL; MI]).

Two helpful maps showing fine-free libraries across the United States are available. The Urban Libraries Council’s map includes library names for whom fines were eliminated and why, and links to more information. The End Library Fines blog’s map is an even richer resource, showing libraries (around the world!) that are already fine-free, partially fine-free, or in the process of going fine-free. Is your fine-free library not on a map? Each offers a way for you to self-report.

As an avid Marketplace Morning Report listener, the following caught my attention on the morning of July 20:

“We’re living through an era when there’s a lack of trust in so many institutions. … Public libraries are still trustworthy community institutions, and most important, public libraries are open to everyone – it doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, social class, and net worth.”

 – Chris Farrell, Marketplace Senior Economics Contributor (Marketplace Morning Report, July 20, 2021)

Well said, Chris.

ALA and many others have noted that libraries help create equity in society, including by removing barriers such as fines, extending their WiFi to a broader radius, and much more. What else is your library doing to foster equity in your community? Please let me know at

Special thanks to Scott Duimstra from CADL for the original inspiration for this piece, and John Helling from IndyPL and Ryan Wieber from KPL, who provided helpful information their libraries each presented to their boards regarding going fine-free.