NYC Libraries Go Fine Free

On October 5, the three New York City library systems—Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Public Library (QPL)—announced that they will no longer charge late fines on books and other circulating materials. New Yorkers of all ages will not need to pay late fines on overdue materials, and the three systems have cleared all prior late fines from patron accounts, unblocking about 400,000 cards frozen because holders had accrued more than $15 in late fees—more than half of them in high-need communities.

Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, Queens Public Library logosOn October 5, the three New York City library systems—Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Public Library (QPL)—announced that they will no longer charge late fines on books and other circulating materials, joining libraries in other large cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Nashville, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Baltimore, and many more.

New Yorkers of all ages will not need to pay late fines on overdue materials, and the three systems have cleared all prior late fines from patron accounts, unblocking about 400,000 cards frozen because holders had accrued more than $15 in late fees—more than half of them in high-need communities.

Patrons will still need to pay replacement fees for lost materials, which will be considered lost after being overdue for one month; if materials are returned, however, no fees will apply. Cards will be blocked from borrowing additional physical materials if users accrue a replacement fee from $50 to $100—the threshold varies from system to system—but they can still access computers, ebooks, and other digital services.

During the week of October 18, patrons are encouraged to come by their neighborhood libraries and reconnect, returning any materials they may have at home free of charge. Branches will be holding giveaways and special programs all week, which will be listed on the individual systems’ websites.

 

“AN ANTIQUATED NOTION”

In 2017, 92 percent of libraries responding to LJ ’s Fines and Fees survey indicated that they collected fines. Since then, many systems, both large and small, have removed fines and fees on late materials—inspired by a number of studies and statements, including the Colorado State Library’s 2015 white paper “Removing Barriers to Access: Eliminating Library Fines and Fees on Children’s Materials,” and a resolution added to the American Library Association (ALA) policy manual in 2019 stating that the association “asserts that imposition of monetary library fines creates a barrier to the provision of library and information services.”

The rationale is simple: Fines and fees present a barrier to library use among the communities that need access most. They also contribute to material attrition, as a patron who can’t afford to pay the fine on a late item may not return it at all. While eliminating fines cuts a line item out of many libraries’ revenue, most have discovered that the loss could be absorbed—and that getting rid of fines raises circulation numbers, brings lapsed users back to the library, and boosts goodwill.

“The simple fact that the library community knows well is that fines are an antiquated notion that doesn't work,” NYPL President and CEO Tony Marx told LJ. “New Yorkers and people throughout the country love and trust their library—they understand it's a public good, they respect it, and they bring their books back.”

In New York, high-need communities, with median household incomes below $50,000, account for six times the number of blocked cards as other areas. The ten NYC branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards are all in high-need areas. This is even more pronounced for patrons under 18; about 30 percent of blocked accounts belonged to children and teens, and a 2017 assessment found that 80 percent of blocked youth cards were located in low-income communities.

Since 2010, New York City’s three library systems have researched what it would take to eliminate fines and fees and implemented pilot initiatives such as “Read Down Your Fines” programs. Studies show that students with fine-free MyLibraryNYC cards, issued to participating New York City Department of Education schools, check out an average of 30 percent more items than their peers without the cards, with less than 2 percent higher loss rates.

In fall 2017, the three systems were given a $2.25 million grant from the JPB Foundation for one-time amnesty for kids and teens 18 and under; they had their library fines automatically forgiven and blocks on their library cards lifted. High school students 18 and older were given the chance to clear their fines in person. Before the amnesty period, out of 927,000 youth with library cards across the city, more than 160,000 had been blocked from checking out materials because they owed fines of $15 or more. Afterward, the libraries saw a more than 60 percent increase in the percentage of previously blocked children and teens who then checked out materials, an effect most pronounced in the lowest income neighborhoods.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, BPL instituted a series of innovations including improved communications such as texts or emails with images of the overdue book cover; spine stickers that would stand out on a patron’s shelf, identifying a book as belonging the library; and 28 additional book drops around the borough. “We were really preparing for this for quite a long time,” BPL President and CEO Linda Johnson told LJ.

 

PANDEMIC AS TIPPING POINT

The pandemic became the tipping point for going fine-free. The NYC systems suspended fines to accommodate patrons who couldn’t return materials during the pandemic and unlocked all cards to give people maximum access at a time when it was needed most. Once branches reopened, however, the libraries needed to convince people to return the hundreds of thousands of books in their homes and apartments.

“It didn't make sense to impose fines,” said Johnson. “So we felt that this was an opportune moment to make the announcement and to move forward with an initiative that we had long been contemplating.”

With no revenue from fines coming in during the pandemic shutdown, the three systems realized that the shortfall could be absorbed. Each did its internal due diligence, and together they decided that the time was ripe to go fine-free. “The pandemic was part of a global learning experience that says we need to rethink our standard operating procedures and look for the biases that are in them,” said Marx. “We can't just keep going the way we've been going and expect different outcomes.”

In addition to removing a barrier for patrons, going fine-free will ease a burden on library employees, who had to enforce late fees at the checkout desk, as well. “We're not in the business of being a collection agency,” said Marx. “That does not help us establish productive relations with our patrons when we have to argue about fines.”

BPL will be fundraising around the loss of revenue, said Johnson, and all are hoping that the incoming New York City mayor—Bill de Blasio’s term ends on December 31—will decide to help make up the libraries’ revenue shortfall in the FY23 budget.

But no matter what it takes to compensate internally for the elimination of fines, all three systems’ leaders agree that it’s time for NYC to do the right thing. “Budget shouldn't be based off the backs of people,” said QPL President and CEO Dennis Walcott. “It shouldn't be based on penalizing people for something that's a part of what we want them to do—to read, to take out books, to get material.”

The goal, he added, is nothing less than a paradigm shift in how patrons view libraries, and new levels of trust. “For far too long, late fines have generated fear and anxiety among those who can least afford to pay, preventing them from opening library accounts, checking out books, or even coming through our doors,” Walcott said. “Late fines tell people they do not belong, and that shutting them out is simply the cost of doing business. This is not only unacceptable, but also inconsistent with our mission.”

“Our public libraries and school communities work hand in hand to help students think critically, broaden their imaginations, and become lifelong learners,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter in a press statement. “As an educator I know firsthand the power of equitable access to information and knowledge, and I applaud our public library partners for taking this critical step. Eliminating fines in New York City will benefit generations of children and help foster their love of learning.”

“The pandemic proved to us that we could, and reinforced for us that we had to—that it was the right thing to do,” said Marx. “And so we are.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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