5 Reasons to Eliminate Overdue Fines in Your Library

Over the past year or so, I’ve seen numerous reports of libraries who have eliminated their overdue fines. The more I hear about it, the more I am in favor of libraries eliminating overdue fines. There are several excellent reasons you should consider eliminating overdue fines in your library:

  • Do it for the children! Children and teens are probably the population most affected by the inability to check out materials due to the accrual of overdue fines. It can be difficult for them to get to the library on their own, and they have no control over whether their parents bring them to the library in time to return books.
  • Eliminate some stress for your frontline staff. We’ve probably all experienced the feeling of dread of having to tell a patron that they owe overdue fines on their account. Especially a problem patron, who will argue that they returned the materials on time, they put them in the book drop while we were closed, how dare we charge him when he returned them on time… all while the line at the circulation desk grows longer and longer. (How much am I getting paid for this? Oh, right. Not enough.)
  • Free up staff time. Collecting overdue fines can take up a nice chunk of staff time. Not only is there the interaction with the patron (especially the ones who argue about the fines), but the staff member also has to mark the fine paid in the ILS system, print the receipt, possibly ring up the fine on a cash register, and make change for the patron.
  • Foster goodwill in the community. We want the community to feel good about the library, not to have horror stories of unpaid overdue fines, collection notices, and disapproving librarians. We want people to feel welcome, not fear that they are going to be called out because they owe us 30 cents.
  • Libraries are about providing, not restricting, access. The American Library Association issued a policy statement on Library Services to the Poor, which states, in part, that ALA is in favor of “Promoting the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.” (http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/extending-our-reach-reducing-homelessness-through-library-engagement-7). Many times, overdue fines prevent access to those patrons who need it the most.

Yes, but…

I hear some of you saying, “But we’ve always had overdue fines!” “How will I replace that money in my budget?” “Won’t this teach people to be irresponsible?”

As far as your budget goes, figure out how much is actually overdue fines (not replacement materials). Many libraries find that it’s less than 1% of a library budget. Maybe you can make up that money in other ways. Perhaps your Friends group or your Foundation would be willing to host an annual fundraiser to make up that money. Maybe a group of local businesses would be willing to offset the overdue fines in return for good press. You could also place a donation jar on the circulation desk that says, “Since we eliminated overdue fines, we are requesting donations to make up the loss.”

As far as enabling people to be irresponsible, I ask this: Are we the morality police? Is there anything in your library’s mission statement or the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights that says we must teach people how to behave responsibly? (I looked – and there isn’t.)

I’m not suggesting that libraries not charge for “lost” items. Sending a notice two to three weeks after the due date for the replacement cost will ensure that most patrons will bring those materials back, stat. When the High Plains Library District in Colorado eliminated their overdue fines, they found that 95% of materials were returned within a week of their due date. (Long Overdue, Ruth Graham, 02/06/2017).

Not ready to take the plunge?

Consider a pilot program. Test it out and see what happens. Or start with eliminating fines for children and young adult materials. You could also consider charging overdue fines, but not blocking a card for owing fines. In this case, you would only block cards of patrons who have not returned materials.

What do you think? Has anyone tried it? Anyone willing?

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One thought on “5 Reasons to Eliminate Overdue Fines in Your Library

  1. Rock on, Regina! I hear that many libraries don’t get to keep those overdue fines anyway — the money is deposited into the city or county general fund. The library does the collection but doesn’t even reap the benefit of this thankless task. I applaud the “fine forgiveness” initiatives that “pay” a fine with non-perishable foods for the local food pantry or pet food for the local shelter. It’s a good step in demonstrating that the library can operate without fine revenue, and that we are more interested in improving community than in policing behavior.

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