Fine Free Library

Library Eliminates Overdue Fines

Beginning December 1st, the New London Public Library will join a handful of other Ohio Libraries that no longer charge fines for overdue material. While popular in many other areas of the country, libraries without late fees are rare in Ohio. Library Director Anne Lowery said she could only find about six other Buckeye libraries who do not charge fines for late books and movies; although she said at least two of those libraries have not collected fines in many years.

Lowery said the decision to eliminate late fines was not an easy one and she has received a fair amount of criticism and pessimism from some library professionals. However, she said she has also heard from many library executives who wish their Trustees would follow suit and want to be updated as to how the experience works in New London.

“Fines for overdue materials are as old as public libraries,” said Lowery.” If you go back to the very earliest libraries in the United States, many charged a membership fee and were only open periodically. They used the membership money and fines to buy new books. When free and open public libraries became the norm in the 1880’s and beyond, fines were meant to be gentle reminders to be responsible and bring back materials so that everyone could enjoy them. Those libraries were limited to what they had on their own shelves and it was a big deal if someone kept a book longer than the agreed upon borrowing period. That meant everyone else was deprived of the use of that book. That part has not changed, but because we have the means to share material with other libraries, our shelves are not bare because someone brought their book back a few days late.”

Lowery researched library policies and spoke to library professionals all over the country. “I talked to library people who actually work with local police to arrest people who keep books out too long. I’ve talked to libraries that don’t do fines and don’t have a problem losing material because of a lack of incentive to bring things back on time.  Fines have never been about revenue. Fines punish loyal patrons who just can’t get a book finished in time or elderly patrons who don’t want to venture out in bad weather just to return a book. Those irresponsible people who don’t care about the fine and aren’t going to return material regardless will always be part of the equation.  We could fine them ten cents or $10 a day and turn them over the collections, they don’t care.”

After much deliberation, she approached the Library Board of Trustees with the idea to eliminate fines. Once she explained her reasons and the results of her research, the Board agreed to change the policy. Staff, said Lowery, was more skeptical. “I asked staff if they really felt good about telling a kid that they weren’t allowed to check out a book because they owed a fine. I asked them if they enjoyed arguing with people over ten cents when those people were not going to follow the rules no matter what. Is that worth it?” Lowery said the biggest concern her staff expressed is that there would be no incentive for irresponsible patrons to bring things back on time without the fines. “I asked them if they really thought that $1 a day fine mattered to the people who weren’t intending to pay it in the first place. We’ve always had those people and will continue to see them come and go; with or without fines. I’d rather focus on the 99% of responsible patrons.”

Lowery said there will still be due dates and patrons will still need to renew their items if they can’t get them back on time.  The new policy will be much simpler for staff and patrons to follow. “If you have overdue items, you will not be able to check out more material until those items are renewed or returned. If thirty days goes by and you don’t return or renew the material and you ignore the notices we give, we will assume you lost the items and you will get a bill from us,” said Lowery.  “This is nothing new. Those charges will end up with a collection agency if it is not paid. What will change is that the Library will no longer charge ten cents per day for overdue books or $1.00 per day for overdue videos. Bring them back in a timely fashion as we expect and you agreed to do when you received a library card and we’re good with that.”  Lowery said that the Library will also forgive any outstanding fines incurred prior to the new policy for overdue items. “If you owe us for lost or damaged books or collection agency fees, we will still recover those costs. But we will agree to wipe out your old fines for being late.”