Abolishing fines: fine-free libraries in the UK and beyond

Fines have been part of the public library experience since their beginning. But now, some library services are questioning whether they should continue. Here’s what I’ve spotted on the subject:

Reasons noted for abolishing fines:

  • Computers can now automatically renew items and email you if requested, automatically at little or no cost. Library system can still charge for loss of book if never returned (perhaps after three automatic renewals).
  • Fines “are a form of “eat your peas” librarianship where we are trying to force people into doing what we think is best instead of serving them in the way they need most”.  In other words, fines are an old-fashioned technique that gives off a Victorian punishing message, out of step with more modern open access and welcoming libraries. Thus fines don’t fit in with the modern welcoming image of public libraries.
  • One bad experience is enough to turn a customer off a shop. A fine is a bad experience and can turn a user of a library into a non-user. Removal of fines will therefore increase use.
  • Even small fines add up quickly and result the loss a customer via a thousand cuts.
  • Penalising the well-behaved – conscientious people pay the fines, the unconscientious just never come back.
  • Removal of fines make class visits a lot more viable. Otherwise, it’s likely a child or two in the class is likely to be refused loans because of fines.
  • Reduce the amount of long overdue books. People are not put off returning “late” books resulting in a better performing book-stock and  less work for staff working on overdues.

“Axing fines is not expected to lead to a loss of stock, Coun Fielding said, adding “Quite frankly, if you were going to steal a book and never return it, you wouldn’t be bothered about the fine anyway.”Oldham, July 2019.

  • Big impact for small amount of money. Fines can prevent people using libraries even though they only add up to a few pounds. Moreover, the people most affected are the poor or the young, that is, the most in need of a public library service. In addition, it may not be the fault of children if they return books late: sometimes its the adults who are irresponsible but libraries punish the child for this.
  • Political reasons. Being able to say you’ve removed fines looks good to the electorate for a relatively small amount of money and can help balance any cuts to libraries elsewhere.
  • Removing fines ties in with other council objectives e.g. education and literacy.
  • No bad impact if withdrawn. Some libraries report no increase in late or non-returned books, the supposed reason for having fines in the first place.
  • Removing fines for children / under 16s helps usage Trafford removed fines after seeing Bolton removing fines for under 16s was anecdotally successful.
  • Libraries don’t charge for e-resources/e-books and so fines for books is in danger of causing inequality.
  • Fines can save library services money – No need for cash or card mechanisms on self-service machines, no cash registers needed, staff time saved in taking fines and in dealing with fines disputes. While unlikely to make a profit, therefore, going fines free will mean that the cost is far less overall than what a simple spreadsheet look would say.

“We’ve been talking about the way people accumulate small fines because they forget to bring a book back for a day, or a few days, because it’s just not convenient,” she says. Yet the financial benefit to the library — especially in St. Louis, where fines are just five cents a day per book — are negligible” St Louis Library

“Libraries are unique public spaces providing free access to reading and learning,” said chief executive Nick Poole. “They are there for everyone, and anything that removes barriers to joining and using the library is very welcome” Nick Poole, CILIP

Reasons against

  • Inertia – (a) We’ve always charged fines, (b) we’re too busy to introduce this change and (c) we’ve just had / are about to have a big change already.
  • Fines teach responsibility. Returning a book late is irresponsible and teaches lots of bad habits.
  • Lack of fines would encourage people not to return books.
  • Income from fines is needed to part pay for the public library service. This is especially important in cash-strapped services, common in the UK, where the chief librarians may privately agree that fines serve little purpose and put people off but the service cannot find an alternate way to earn the tens of thousands of pounds per year they bring in.
  • There may still be a charge if the book is not returned at all, which may cause a surprise to some who think it’s entirely free.
It's not fine: Portsmouth Libraries lead the way

It’s not fine: Portsmouth Libraries lead the way

The UK experience.

14 councils in the UK are currently fines-free (30/6/19), see below:

Angus – Abolished overdue fines in Angusalive libraries in December 2015 with no reported negative impact on return of stock (source:  Fiona Dakers, Senior Manager, who also says “The positive impact has been enhancing our public image as a progressive and inclusive service and our teams no longer having the negative interactions with customers “). See New chapter for Angus libraries as overdue book charges are consigned to history – Courier. “Some £5,258.50 in overdue charges was waived against 624 borrowers, and 3,172 items with a combined value of £24,424.40 were returned. The removal of fines for books brings into line borrowing of electronic stock such as e-books and e-magazines, which never incurred fines.”. This is the decision paper on the subject.

“Although there is no evidence to suggest that overdue charges do encourage timely return, there is some evidence that a significant increase in overdue charges had an impact on reducing the number of late returns.”

 

Barnsley –  Fine free from July 1st 2019. “Councillors hope that removing fines will take away a stigma which could discourage parents from taking their children into libraries, if they have had bad experiences with being fined in the past. Although the maximum fine at present is  just over £5, the council said that was a sum which could be significant for those on low incomes – an element of society which could benefit from using libraries, which now have public access computers as well as traditional book services”

Bath and North East SomersetFine-free as a trial from 2 April 2019.

Blackpool Fine-free from 1 April 2019 due to reduction in fine income and desire to attract users.

Bridgend All fines to be removed from 1 April 2019, becoming the first Welsh library service to do so.

Halton One-year pilot started from 1st January 2019.

Kirklees All fines ended from 29.12.18 ““We have taken the decision to no longer collect fines for overdue books. The Council feels that fines affect the most vulnerable in our communities and prevent people accessing library services.”

Oldham –  Library fines abolished. (July 2019)

PortsmouthWhy Portsmouth libraries will scrap fines for three years – July 2018. “All penalty fees for the late return of books were scrapped as of June 18, along with charges for reserving items. The scheme will run for three years, with a view to make it permanent if it proves a success” … “The council is confident libraries will not face a financial loss as a result of the change. Revenue from library fines in the city had declined from £28,000 a year to an anticipated £16,000 since 2011. Income from reservations dropped from £6,424 to £3,951.£5,000 is predicted to come as a result of scrapping fines as people would be more likely to return overdue books, reducing need for replacements.”

“Library services manager, Lindy Elliott, agreed. ‘The main positive change is that we’re seeing more books going out even though the scheme hasn’t been going for long,’ she said.”

Rutland – “No overfdue charges“. The first in the UK to abolish fines.

Salford Fines free sine June 2019. “Salford council hope the move will open up the city’s libraries to all and said it didn’t want readers to ‘worry’ about incurring daily charges.”

Shetland

Trafford Abolished April 2018. “In a first for a UK borough, the council said in a statement that fines can be “off-putting for customers”, and it hopes the change, which will see library fines eliminated across Trafford for all ages from April, will lead to “a further increase in usage of libraries across the borough”.” Trafford were taking £31,000 in fines 2016/17. The Head of Customer Service has given her views on the experiment so far (written November 2018) for Libraries Connected in a short blog post New chapter for library borrowing. The BBC reported in January 2019 that “the authority said 7,000 additional items have been borrowed and there has been a 4% rise in people joining compared to the previous year.”

West Dunbartonshire – Fines-free. Any impact on stopping library fines would need to be inferred – we are all happy that not having fines definitely reduces barriers to inclusion.  Moreover, we do not feel that there is any area of our library provision which is detrimentally affected (such as significant stock loss).” (email from library service, July 2019)

West Lothian – Fines free (awaiting confirmation from council)

The Republic of Ireland

All of the country’s libraries went fine-free from January 2019.

Australia

Queensland has 62 public library systems, of which only 13 are still charging (November 2018).

The whole state of Tasmania went fine-free from December 2018:

  • Tasmania abolishes library fines statewide – Books and Publishing. “Tasmania is one of lowest-ranking Australian states for literacy, with nearly half of the Tasmanian population functionally illiterate, according to a survey conducted by the state government. Tasmania education minister Jeremy Rockliff said the abolition of library fines is part of an effort to lift state education outcomes by making libraries more accessible. ‘We believe these changes to the library borrowing process will help achieve that goal,’ Rockliff told the Examiner.”
  • Australia – Fee-free overdue policy prompts library renaissance among young TasmaniansABC News. “More than 8,000 new members signed up to the state-run library service in just five months between November 2018, when the changes were introduced, and March this year. It is a stark contrast to the loss of 900 members Libraries Tasmania encountered in the same period the year prior.” … “Data released in response to a question-on-notice during budget estimates showed the Education Department wrote off more than $330,000 in overdue fees last financial year as part of the reform. “We looked at what it was costing us in staff time, sometimes it was getting down to us chasing people through a debt collector,”” (June 2019)

Austria

Salzburg library has been fines-free for a few years, new library Wiener Neustadt will be fines free when it opens (July 2019: source librarian conversation at CILIP Conference).

The USA experience

  • There is a map of American libraries that have gone “fine-free” here.
  • Canada – What’s changed since St. Paul ended library late fees? Usage bolstered while overdue rate holds steady — so far – Twin Cities. “The library tracked circulation specific to the 42,000 patrons with formerly blocked cards. That group checked out 19,000 items — evidence that going fine-free actively drew them back to the library. From January to March, circulation system-wide increased by a fraction of a percentage point — 0.06 percent, to be exact. That may not sound like a lot, but the numbers had been trending downward until then. The uptick represents the first circulation increase since a series of library renovations drew patron interest in 2015, and the first uptick since 2009 not attributable to a branch remodel or reopening. Overall, seven of 14 branches saw at least a 1 percent increase in circulation. Two libraries in particular saw double-digit increases in circulation, and both are located in low-income, high-minority neighbourhoods. Circulation at the Dayton’s Bluff branch went up 15.5 percent. Circulation at the Arlington Hills Library, also on the city’s East Side, went up 13.1 percent.” (July 2019)
  • Library fines with Meg DePriest and Beth Crist – Princh. “Should library fines be abolished? Are they a vital source of revenue for libraries, or do they do more harm than good? Are they in line with the mission of libraries, or are they contradictory to it? You can find the answer to these and many other questions in episode two of the Princh Library Lounge! In this episode our host, Vicky Woolbarn, is joined by Beth Crist and Meg DePriest, two experts on the topic of library fines.” (March 2019)
  • Library fines hit Seattle’s lower-income neighborhoods hardest – Crosscut. “the proposed seven-year, $213.3 million property tax levy the mayor rolled out last week, Seattle Public Libraries would do away with late fees, following a trend of libraries across the country looking to make access to their materials and services more equitable. “We find that fines are barriers in ways that they really shouldn’t be, and they don’t need to be, and we can have a better system,”  (24 March 2019)
  • USA – Not So Fine with Library Fines? A Look at the Overdue Debate – Ebsco Post. “For more than a century, libraries around the world have been collecting money for overdue books and other borrowed items not returned on time. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest fine paid for an overdue library book was $345.14 … 92 2 percent of libraries in the United States charge fines and fees … An informal poll of Library Think Tank Facebook page followers showed that most librarians are not in favor of charging overdue fines. Of the 526 who weighed in, 72 percent were opposed, 14 percent were in favor, and the remaining 14 percent believed fines should be waived for children’s and/or teen materials only”
  • USA – Why In The World Would You Drop Fines? The Case Study Of C. E. Weldon Public Library – Princh. ” Two months ago we asked our blog readers how much of their library’s revenue is from library fines and if they would consider removing fines at their library or not.”: Of respondents 27% have fines as more than 5% of revenue, 25% between 1 and 5% and 48% less than 1%. 90% would consider removing fines. “To provide you with more data on how removing fines can be a successful method to increase circulation, we have talked with Roberta Peacock, the library director of C. E. Weldon Library (Martin, Tennessee). She tells us more about the reasons that determined her to eliminate overdue fines and how her library has benefited from doing it. Read more insights below”. 15% increase in circulation, 60% drop in overdues. (November 2018)
  • USA – A librarian’s case against overdue loan fines – Tedx Talk. “Libraries have the power to create a better world; they connect communities, promote literacy and spark lifelong learners. But there’s one thing that keeps people away: the fear of overdue book fines. In this thought-provoking talk, librarian Dawn Wacek makes the case that fines don’t actually do what we think they do. What if your library just … stopped asking for them altogether?” (November 2018)
  • USA – The case against library fines—according to the head of The New York Public Library – Quartz. “While relatively small library fines have been a punchline in pop culture over the years (Jerry Seinfeld’s “library cop” is an icon, for example), the fact is that for many families across the US, library fines are a true barrier to access. At The New York Public Library, $15 in accrued fines prohibits one from checking out materials. The reason for this policy may be obvious—it’s incentive to get books returned and back on our shelves—but is it really effective? For those who can afford the fines, paying a small late fee is no problem, so the fines are not a particularly strong incentive. On the other hand, for those who can’t afford the fines, they have a disproportionately negative impact.”
  • USA – The Fine Free Library: One Year Later – Medium. “The benefits of eliminating overdue fines have been clear. At the February panel, Bromberg said that checkouts were on the rise at Salt Lake City Public Library, and the number of new cardholders rose 3.5%. “Getting rid of fines brought new people into the library and allowed previous users to return,” he said.”

““When a mother of four brings in a stack of picture books a week late and wants to know if she can get some new ones, I get to say, ‘Yes!’,” said Tanya Platt, Circulation Assistant at the Main Library. “All those ‘yeses’ contribute to building a better relationship with our customers because they can see us as allies. And that feels really good!””

  • USA – The St. Louis Public Library Is No Longer Charging Daily Overdue Fines – Riverfront Times. “Late in returning that library book? No problem! Under a new policy the St. Louis Public Library quietly rolled out last month, it will automatically renew your materials for you — no need even to ask.  The automatic renewals are part of the library’s ongoing quest to stay connected with its patrons, says Brenda McDonald, director of central services. Among public libraries, that goal is part of a national conversation.”
  • USA – Windsor Public Library reinstates late fees – Windsor Star. “Acting CEO Chris Woodrow said he wouldn’t call the library’s 21-month no-fine experiment a failure but said it brought to light a number of issues that impeded the way the library operates. “It caused us some headaches,” Woodrow said. “We were finding that since there was no fines, customers were keeping materials way, way longer than they should because they weren’t going to be penalized. “And then we had customers waiting for that specific item getting frustrated. We were also hearing from customers that they would prefer to pay a small fine and have access to our materials rather than have their accounts blocked.”

See also (taken from #critlib):

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