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.