Abolishing fines

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • No bad impact if withdrawn.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.

“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.

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.


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”.”


The USA experience

  • There is a map of American libraries that have gone “fine-free” here.
  • 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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