In the U.S, an increasing number of libraries are considering going fine free. The argument in favor of this move says that it will increase library usage among low-income individuals and families who may not be using the library currently, either because they fear accruing fees, or because they have already accrued fees that they cannot afford to pay. Dissenters worry that removing late fees will give patrons no incentive to return books on time. Additionally, some libraries rely on overdue fines to supplement their budgets. Either way, the topic can raise strong feelings. The research, however, currently suggests that going fine free can create more benefits than negatives.
What does it mean to be fine free?
Some people worry that removing late fines means that patrons will no longer return materials, making them unavailable for others who may need them. It is important to note, however, that removing late fines does not mean that people can keep out materials indefinitely. Typically, libraries allow patrons to keep materials a certain number of days after the due date. After this extension, the patron is charged the full price of the materials, as if they are lost and need to be replaced. Returning the materials will erase the replacement fee from the patron’s record. In the meantime, the replacement fee, if large enough, may create a hold on the patron’s account, meaning that they cannot use their library card until they return the items. Grace periods vary by library, and presumably affect how available items are on the shelves. I have seen libraries give grace periods anywhere from one week to six weeks.
What are the benefits of going fine free?
Proponents of fine-free libraries argue that it promotes equal access because low-income families and individuals may be deterred from using the library by the prospect of having to pay. Additionally, many are particularly worried about the impact of fines on children, who may not be able to use the library, either because their caregivers worry about fines, or because their caregivers have already accrued fines (possibly on the child’s card). Going fine free is a way to encourage people to come back to the library and to use it more often.
Why do some people not want to abolish fines?
Some people worry that abolishing overdue fines will mean patrons will no longer be incentivized to return materials on time. Others worry that getting rid of fines will remove a source of funding for libraries, which already tend to be under-funded. However, a study by the Colorado State Library suggests that there is not enough data on fines and patron behavior in order to make an evidence-based argument that fines work. A 1981 study by Hansel and Burgin (referenced by the Colorado study) found that fine-free libraries do not have higher overdue rates than libraries with fines, but also that fine-free libraries tend to have higher overdue rates in the short-term, but lower ones in the long-term. In other words, patrons of fine-free libraries may be keeping their books past the overdue dates, but at least they bring the materials back eventually, instead of deciding to keep them forever once they accrue too many fines. A 1983 study by Hanel and Burgin later found that overdue fines only worked if they were high.
In addition, the Colorado State Library study suggests that libraries can break even or potentially save money by eliminating fines. While libraries may believe that fines are important for their budgets, removing fines can result in reduced costs because libraries are no longer investing in technology used to collect fines.
Is Fine Free the Way to Go?
A lack of studies on overdue fines and patron behavior makes it difficult to say with certainty if going fine free will either create or solve problems. However, the current information available suggests that going fine free could mainly create longer wait times for materials, at least in the short term. The question is then, whether having materials available to all patrons more speedily is valued more than making the library more welcoming to individuals who might not use it at all, if they fear accruing fines. Currently, it seems like more libraries are interested in expanding equal access by removing fines.
What do you think? Is your library fine free? How did the transition go? Would you like your library to go fine free?