books · libraries

What Happens When a Library Stops Charging Late Fees?

Martijn van Exel, “Salt Lake City Public Library,” August 9, 2011, via Wikimedia.

Sometimes library fines can add up. A man returned a book that was overdue by 41 years and had a fine of $299.30. A 47 year overdue book had a fine of $345.14. And other books have been so overdue that libraries give up altogether on collecting fees. (US President George Washington, for example, borrowed The Law of Nations from the New York Society Library. The book was returned 221 years late, and adjusting for inflation, the fine would have been around $300,000.)

But most people don’t face such large late fees. They may suddenly remember that a library book is a week or two overdue, and in most cases those fines add up to less than $5. These fees go to support library programs and costs that otherwise lack appropriate funding. However several libraries have begun to eliminate library late fees. In fact, a few of them argue that late fees represent everything that a library should not be.

When patrons can’t pay fines, libraries often revoke their borrowing privileges. In the case of adults with steady incomes, this might not be a disaster – they simply return later to pay the fee or buy the books they need elsewhere – but for children this can have horrible results. The New York Times tells the story of Damaris Triana who borrowed several children’s books from the San Jose Public Library for her sister then lost the books. The library fined her $101, and the bill eventually was passed to a collection agency that sought the money from Damaris’s parents. Damaris was 8 when she lost the books. In San Jose, CA, half of children and teenagers with library cards owe fines, and in some library districts, 35% of patrons have had the library revoke their borrowing privileges.

Fear of fines and government intervention makes people, often those who could benefit the most from it, avoid the library. After dealing with high late fees, one mother discouraged her daughter from using the library. “I try to explain to her: ‘Don’t take books out. It’s so expensive.”

Because they want to encourage people to continue using their services, libraries are looking into alternatives to late fees. The Queens Public Library has a program called Read Down Your Fees in which people under the age of 21 can earn credits to pay off fines by spending time reading in the library. Other libraries allow patrons to pay fines by donating food, working in the library, or simply not counting fines for some groups such as young children. And some libraries are even eliminating library late fees altogether.

The Salt Lake City Library System is one such set of libraries. They recently decided to stop fining patrons for overdue books. Though this will impact library revenue – around .3% of the annual budget came from late fees – the librarians in the system say that the change is worth it. The executive director of the libraries, Peter Bromberg, told The Salt Lake City Tribune that by having fines, the libraries were “hitting the people who need us the most the hardest.” And that wasn’t what anyone wanted.

I don’t have terribly strong feelings about library fines, but I do appreciate that libraries are working to be as accessible as possible to the people who need them. And if you need some faith in humanity restored there is other good news; even after they eliminated late fees, one library district in Colorado found that 95% of its books and materials were returned within a week of their due date.

People usually want books to find their way back to library shelves.


35 thoughts on “What Happens When a Library Stops Charging Late Fees?

  1. Without library fines, this makes novelettes like Stephen King’s “The Library Police” obsolete.

    I hadn’t thought about the negatives of library fines, essentially being something that puts people off from libraries. Then again, when I’ve lost books, the library is not nice at all about it. “Replacement costs $62.” “But I found it for $5 on Amazon, same condition.” “We don’t care.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really is too bad when libraries are inflexible when it comes to lost books or fines. And I hadn’t considered the affect these policy changes might have on literature. 30 years from now readers might be very confused by fiction that references library late fees.


      1. That is a distinct possibility. I’ll be that 80 year old talking to the youngsters. “Gather round, kids. Now, back in the day, they used to charge you money if you kept intellectual property over a certain time…”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe people are fundamentally good, so I’m not surprised most people returned books without the threat of fines. However, I also believe in personal accountability. When someone wants to benefit from a shared system they should treat the loaned books with care and respect that they aren’t personal property.

    Great post topic BTW.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The city where I live has a fantastic library service with around 20 libraries (I think) servicing all the suburbs (we’re a widespread city). A few years ago they introduced an annual holiday season amnesty scheme. If you have any fines or fees (there is a fee for putting a book on hold ,for example) all fines & fees will be wiped if you donate canned goods to their Christmas food drive. It’s a win-win situation – the food drive gets a much needed boost and no more fees or fines to pay!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I’m like you in that I’m happy to give money back to the library, but I’m also aware that I’m lucky to have enough money that I don’t have to worry about minor late fees. (Fingers crossed that I don’t forget about a book for years though…)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an awesome article! I never really would’ve thought that people most likely to use the library and get the most out of it would be unlikely to use it because of the high costs of lost or late books. Granted, I’ve never actually gone to the library, nor returned a late book. But this is a great article because of that! We definitely need to bring more awareness to this topic so that those who would benefit the most from libraries will be allowed to use them. Nice article, Kristen! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My immediate thought on reading this was “if you don’t want to pay fines look after the books and return them on time”. There are so many people who just don’t take responsibility it drives me a little nuts. The books are supposed to be there for everyone so treat them and the system with respect.
    That being said sometimes stuff does happen and I do think libraries should be reasonable about fines i.e. they shouldn’t be excessive. I’ve never really thought fines were there as a funding source but as an incentive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Public systems really are so difficult to balance because they require the buy-in (even if that buy-in doesn’t involve actually money) of so many different people. Luckily I think you’re right that fines don’t act as a major funding source, which means that libraries have a little more flexibility in figuring out what incentives work best for getting people to use the library and respect library materials.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The highest fine I ever saw was $108 for an ancient science textbook that we immediately threw away. It actually threw me for a loop as I was not authorized to accept that high an amount of money and I thought there was a typo in the system.

    Personally I would always accept a replacement copy in place of a fine and if I knew a family had financial difficulties I would quietly replace that book or remove the fees. Everyone should be welcome in the library.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yikes! It was always sad to me when it was a huge fine for a book that you knew no one else wanted. (Or for a book that library wasn’t going to hold onto.)

      And I agree that accepting replacement copies is a good way to circumvent some of the fine issues.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that would be a great step! I used to work in university libraries, and a few of them definitely had fine limits. (Which, considering the way some students held on to books, saved people a lot of money.)


    2. I like this idea, and not just because my library does this currently. They cap their fines at $6 (per book). And though this seem like a pretty fair policy, I do wish we had a time period during the year where people could turn in their late books and have their fines forgiven. Life happens, you know?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the Read Down Your Fees program sounds like a great compromise! Like others have said, I am happy to pay my fees when I’ve kept a book too long, as it is for the library; however, it had never crossed my mind that some may avoid the library for that reason. Shame on me! Maybe I’ll leave a donation for the next person who comes in needing help paying a fine.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow… this is a really terrific article. Thanks for posting it. My local library has taken some small steps into an honor-system… system. No late fees for some thing, but you can’t take any more things out until you’ve returned the late things. So far so good, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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