Should Libraries Go Fine Free?

Should Libraries Go Fine Free

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?

26 thoughts on “Should Libraries Go Fine Free?

  1. bluereadergal says:

    My work library is fine free but if the item is lost, they have to pay for it or replace it. My local library that I go is fine free as well. I think if you lose the item you have to pay for it. I do not have a problem with this. Each library is different!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s generally how fine free works. It means no overdue fines, but you can still be charged for damaged or lost items. It’s not like people can keep the books forever! XD

      Like

  2. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    This is complicated to answer in my opinion and it’s not possible for Indian libraries to go fine free as I have seen people not returning books even thought there is fine. I have seen some series are not complete because people don’t return book. And library don’t even replace those missing books! I have to say I rely a lot on NetGalley and publishers for new releases.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think it depends on who has the book out in terms of whether they want to return it. I once had a book on hold for like two months because the person who had it just didn’t want to give it up–and they were clearly okay with paying two months’ of overdue fees. It was really annoying for me, though!

      And I’ve noticed U. S. libraries often have parts of series missing, too. Then I realized that the library workers often don’t know the series is missing pieces unless someone tells them. I guess they just assume if they don’t see it on the shelves, it’s checked out. But they generally reorder the book if someone cares enough to bring it up, so that’s good at least!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I’m ok with fine free in general, but I do personally think and have seen that people will keep materials much longer if they are not being fined for keeping them. Is waiting for a book three I want for three extra months a minor inconvenience in life? Sure, but it’s hard to not feel annoyed when you’re thinking, “Well, if they were actually enforcing due dates, this would be much less likely to happen.”

    I also get the point that “people are fined if they actually lose the book,” which I’ve seen multiple people make, but the issue is that “when they lose the book” is defined differently place by place. Because, of course, in a lot of cases the book is not ACTUALLY lost; the patron is just keeping it at home because they are not being fined for keeping it past the due date. So does the library declare the book “lost” 5 days after the due date? 5 months? And is the patron clear on the fact that his is going to happen and there is SOME type of fine? And are they clear on what happens if they do finally return the book? Like, the fine is waived and the don’t really have to pay it? Or they do have to pay it? Etc.

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    • Krysta says:

      I favor fine free libraries with shorter grace periods for precisely this reason. Charging a replacement fee that will put a hold on the card has too little teeth if someone can keep the book for six weeks. That’s six weeks no one else can read the book. Then imagine a bunch of people in a hold list all keeping it six weeks past the due date. The wait period could add up quickly.

      I think most people actually don’t understand the concept of a replacement fee that goes away once you returned the material. Because the library is presumably just advertising, “We’re FINE FREE!” and then all the other charges are lost in the fine print. But I imagine someone who routinely keeps materials out forever will eventually figure it out once they go to complain about the charges.

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  4. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I haven’t had a library fine for so long that I don’t know if my library system’s fees are high or low.

    In general, I am in favor of getting rid of fines. I have seen the problems they can cause first-hand. A friend had an ex who wrecked his account by running up major fines and not returning several things before she left him, and he didn’t have the money to clear her wreckage afterwards. So he couldn’t check things out for ages afterwards. It would have been less of an issue for him if our library system didn’t have fines, and he could have gone back to the library much sooner.

    That said, our system doesn’t charge fines for overdue children’s materials because they want all kids to be able to access books.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard of weird situations with people saying their exes had hundreds of materials out on their cards. And, of course, the kids who can’t use their cards because their parents built up fines on their cards. I like the idea of going fine free, but with a shorter grace period, so materials are still coming back within a reasonable amount of time.

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  5. Deanna Parenti says:

    I believe fine free libraries are a great step towards a more equitable future in regards to education. My local library unfortunately is not fine free AND is not open on weekends. This fact is extremely disappointing to me because libraries are considered community centers in rural areas where actual community centers do not exist. A library is a safe haven for many children who have working parents who cannot afford childcare. Libraries should always be working to create the most welcoming environment possible. Fine free libraries is a great step

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    • Krysta says:

      That sounds like an under-funded library to me. Usually by the time the library cuts hours, it’s pretty bad. I imagine they keep the fines as a sort of additional income, but one has to wonder how much of the overall budget the fines actually contribute to.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Louise says:

    My library is already fine free and it is an interesting question! On the whole I do think it’s a good thing as it does take the pressure off and although I typically return my books on time sometimes I am not quite finished and it is nice to be able to drop it off a few days late without needing to panic about it. It has been fine free for nearly 2 years and in that time I have only ever had to wait a long time for a book to come back (months). It did come back eventually but was quite annoying!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve had times when I was waiting months for books, as well. I think twice the problem ended up being that a staff member had the book out. And staff aren’t charged library fines. So…they just didn’t return it, even though it was on hold. I can imagine a lot of people doing that!

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  7. Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies says:

    Our library system eliminated fines a couple of years ago, and I think it’s a really positive step. Until there’s data that shows that people tend not to return books or some other real result about negative impact, I think removing fines is a good way to encourage library use and remove barriers.

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  8. Julie Anna's Books says:

    That’s a good point that there’s costs involved with managing fines! Our libraries were temporarily fine free after the first COVID lockdown and now some of them are making that change permanent. I’m curious to see if that means more people are able to use library services (and I hope so!).

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s pretty cool! It’s interesting to see what kinds of changes the pandemic caused. Organizations tried new things–and often found out they liked those new things!

      Like

  9. danielle pitter says:

    I’m apart of a subcommittee with my library association, and one of our projects for the state is for more libraries to go fine-free. We already service a lot of patrons who are older, children, teens who can’t afford fines. As long as patrons ~eventually~ give back materials, then going fine-free might work.

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    • Krysta says:

      Very cool! Thanks for your hard work! While I do think longer wait times could be annoying, I think that needs to be balanced with making the library more accessible everyone. And, for me, at least, it seems that the potential inconvenience of longer wait times doesn’t outweigh the benefits of getting more people to use the library.

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  10. ofmariaantonia says:

    We have fine-free for seniors. My sister’s library just went full-out fine-free.

    I once had to pay a fine on a DVD that I had out for three extra days (I had forgotten the date I had taken the DVD out. I thought I was returning the DVD on time, so I was in for a bit of a surprise. I think, at the time, we had to pay $2/day for DVDs! I was not happy. First, because it was the WORST movie ever. And second, because I honestly thought I was returning it on time.)

    I do think people might keep their books a little longer if they’re fine-free. But I’m not opposed to a 3-day grace period.

    (Note: Our library does have a service now that sends an email reminder that my books are due in 2-3 days, which is nice. That did not exist 14 years ago when my story happened.)

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t know why libraries tend to charge higher rates for DVDs than books (they’re more popular??) but those fees can definitely add up! Especially if you have multiple items out that are overdue. One reason I don’t ever see myself checking out the maximum number of items!

      Haha, I remember once talking to a librarian who seemed upset that the library had started one of those email notification services. She was really into the math of the library, so she said the overdue fines were once like 20% (or something REALLY high) of the budget, and those pesky reminder emails really slashed their funding. XD

      It’s a funny story, but it’s also not. I think the local service area should just pay higher taxes for the library (right now it’s under $20 per person for the local tax), and then the library wouldn’t have to be relying on overdue fees to operate.

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  11. Christina @ The Bookshelf Corner says:

    This was a fascinating post! I’ve never heard of fine free libraries before. I’ve only ever used one public library my entire life so I’m not sure which would be best but both sides make convincing arguments. I know for the library I go to fine are really low, such as it’s 25 cents per day for books and $1 for DVDs, CDs, and I think video games. I don’t know what happens if a long time passes without returning materials. I’ve never had to wait too long for someone to return something I’m next in line for. I’m also the kind of person who hates being “late” in any way, so I’ll get super anxious if I don’t return things on time.

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    • Krysta says:

      Usually if you wait too long to return items, in any library, fine free or not, they assume you lost it and they charge you the item the material costs to purchase. But I’ve never done that because you’d have to wait a pretty long time!!

      Liked by 1 person

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