The End of Fines?

As more and more libraries are finding, eliminating fees lowers barriers while still bringing books back into circulation.

As recently as a decade ago, for a library to abolish overdue fines was a radical move. Some libraries have been fine-free for years—a few for their entire existence. But for many, the idea has gathered momentum recently, along with the growing awareness that fines and fees are an equity issue, raising barriers to those who need the library most.

Apart from “this is how we’ve always done it,” there are three common reasons given for collecting fines and fees: to generate revenue, to ensure that books are returned, and to teach responsibility. These are the same across all types of libraries—public and academic, large and small, urban and rural. Yet as more libraries go fine-free, their experiences challenge all three.

Much has changed even since LJ’s January 2017 Fines and Fees survey (see “Doing Fines(s)?”). Those results showed 92 percent of the more than 450 respondents collecting fees. Only five percent of those did not charge for children’s materials. Although responding libraries estimated that around 14 percent of materials were returned late, the majority—88 percent—were returned within one week of the due date. Daily fines for lateness were typically small, approximately 17¢, but could be up to a maximum of $5–$10, or the cost of replacement.

Recently, large systems such as the San Diego Public Library; Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL), Baltimore; Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL); Nashville Public Library; St. Paul Public Library, MN; and more have eliminated fines entirely, as have many suburban, small-town, and rural libraries. Academic libraries from private universities to small community colleges have elected to stop collecting late fees from students. Some libraries that have eliminated fines for books still charge fees on items such as DVDs or Playaways; others do not. Some place a freeze on holds until an item is returned; some don’t. (Nearly all fine-free libraries charge for lost or damaged items.) In her recent editorial “Farewell to Fines” (LJ 7/18), LJ editor in chief Rebecca T. Miller asked readers about their experiences going fine-free. Several of the responding libraries are included in this article.

What all fine-free libraries have in common, however, is that they have examined their budgets, card registration patterns, renewal rates, and circulation statistics; reviewed before and after numbers and testimonials from peer libraries; and then stepped up to challenge the assumptions for collecting fines in the first place. Increasingly, they have found that eliminating fines has raised circulation numbers, brought lapsed users back to the library, and boosted goodwill, which can lead to substantial funding gains at the ballot box.

REMOVING BARRIERS

In 2014, the Colorado State Library (CSL) undertook a two-year project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), to promote early learning among low-income children. The resulting study and report, Project SPELL (Supporting Parents in Early Literacy Through Libraries), scrutinized barriers to public library use among parents and caregivers in low-income communities and discovered that fines and fees were among the greatest obstacles.

Many parents and caregivers surveyed said that although they did use the library, they didn’t let their children check out books because they didn’t want to risk late fines and were afraid they wouldn’t be able to return them in time—whether because of work schedules, mobility issues, or lack of reliable transportation. Other parents, explains CSL youth and family services consultant Beth Crist, told them, “We do let our kids check out books, but as soon as we get home we put them high up on the shelf and don’t let the kids touch them because we don’t want them damaged or lost.”

The study led to a white paper, “Removing Barriers to Access: Eliminating Library Fines and Fees on Children’s Materials,” issued in 2015, and many libraries have used it as a starting point for analyzing whether they can—and should—go fine-free.

REVENUE, RETURNS, RESPONSIBILITY

Revenue from fines and fees has been falling steadily for years as more e-materials—which are returned automatically—enter circulation, and more libraries institute auto renewal for physical materials without holds. The income generated by fines currently averages one percent or less across all types and sizes of libraries. Many that have gone fine-free have easily made up the shortfall by other means, such as offering passport services or holding fund raisers. Some even find that the cost of collecting fines equals or even exceeds the revenue thus generated, so that eliminating them doesn’t leave any shortfall to overcome.

Late fees can encourage returns and thus put books back in circulation, but they can also backfire, as patrons who can’t afford to pay the accumulated fines may decide not to return a book at all. Amnesty periods, reading down fines, or “food for fines” donation programs don’t always serve the people who need them most. EPFL had held a number of food for fines initiatives over the years, and these proved solid partnerships with local food banks, reports CEO Heidi Daniel. The problem, she explains, “was that you can’t ask a customer who themselves might benefit from the services of a food bank to participate in that program.”

The concept of promoting responsibility is the hardest to quantify and inspires debate over whether it ought to be a library job even if fines were effective at doing so. Notes SLCPL executive director Peter Bromberg, “The library is an arm of the government, and I believe that the teaching of morals and behavior is really the purview of the family and the church. I would want to be very sensitive about the government stepping in and seeing itself as having a role to teach morals and moral responsibility.” Even for those who are comfortable seeing libraries in that role, questions of equity arise: Is it fair to put a freeze on the card of a five-year-old who can’t get to the library to return a book on time? Or to punish a patron who might need to choose between paying a fine and eating?

STARTING ANEW

A number of recent fine-free initiatives originated with a new director who brought fresh eyes and a creative take on breaking down service barriers to their system.

Bromberg arrived at SLCPL in 2016 with the initial goal of laying the groundwork for a budget increase, imagining he’d save the question of fines for the following year. As he met with board members, city council, community leaders, and employees, however, he found himself casually bringing up the idea of going fine-free, and people were interested to hear more. In the process of discussing the budget, “I was workshopping the [fine-free] messaging a little bit,” Bromberg explains. “I could start to see what was resonating and what wasn’t.”

By the time Bromberg gave his formal budget presentation in spring 2017, he recalls, the city council executive director was all in: “We want you to do this fine-free thing now. It’s a great idea—why wait?” Surprised, Bromberg only had a few months to put a policy together, but it was passed and implemented by the beginning of July 2017. Bromberg elected to wipe all fines clean and go forward fine-free and immediately saw an increase in checkouts, new cards, and returning borrowers. He has been collecting statistics since then and gladly shares them, adding, “I feel like I have a part-time unpaid consulting gig...helping libraries go fine-free.”

Sharing both quantitative and qualitative data on the transition is critical to assisting more libraries to move forward on eliminating fines. When then adult services director Bobbi Perryman wanted to take the Vespasian Warner Public Library District (VWPLD), Clinton, IL, fine-free in 2009, she reports, there was little hard or anecdotal data on the subject. The director at the time had a background in law enforcement, she says, “so her knee-jerk reaction was, ‘They’ve broken the rules. They have to be punished somehow.’ ”

Perryman, now VWPLD executive director, did her own research. She pointed out that the library’s overdue fees, maxing out at $2 per item, accounted for .0016 percent of its income while taking up large amounts of staff time. Perryman recalls college students who had lost library privileges as children coming in to pay their fines once they had jobs of their own.

Another groundbreaker, Colorado’s Anythink Libraries, also decided to go fine-free in 2009—the change initiated by staff who had begun experimenting with the idea the previous summer. Fines were waived for children and teens who signed up for summer reading, recalls Director Pam Sandlian Smith, and “the response from the community was so positive that it set the conversation in motion to create 
a fine-free policy.” The library formed a task force, made a recommendation to the administrative team, and developed a draft policy to present to the Board of Trustees.

“When people discover that they aren’t going to be penalized for forgetting to return their books on time, they are always a bit surprised and always grateful,” notes Sandlian Smith. “We want people to remember the library for the fabulous experiences they encounter, not the grief of having to pay a fine for returning books a few days late.”

FINE-FREE FOR LIFE

Sometimes, however, the library convinces the director. When Cheryl Schoenhaar stepped into her role at the helm of the Town Hall Library (THL), North Lake, WI, in 2013, she had spent most of her 30 years of librarianship in fine-based institutions. THL, however, had been fine-free since it opened in 1966. At her welcoming reception, she recalls, “Over half of the 90 people who attended felt the need to get me into a quiet corner so that they could share two main themes over and over again—how truly wonderful the staff were…and how important it was to remain a no-fines library. As one member of the Friends of the Town Hall Library commented, ‘Why would we want to fine our neighbors? That’s just not the community we want to have.’ ”

THL serves a largely agricultural population that poses multiple challenges to due dates. Farmers’ schedules don’t always align with that of the library, Schoenhaar says, vacation home owners take books back to their home states by mistake, and homeschoolers tend to keep materials for an entire semester. Instead of fees, the library employs a “high touch” system of personal phone calls to remind patrons: “Hey, those books are a little overdue right now. If you could get those back to us, we’d really appreciate it.” Return rates average around 95 percent, says Schoenhaar.

 

FINE-FREE IS FINE The Enoch Pratt Free Library celebrated doing away with fines with a block party featuring performances, food trucks, a DJ, and a new mural at its Walbrook branch; fine-free announcements from the Salt Lake City Public Library and San Diego Public Library. Photo courtesy of Enoch Pratt Free Library

EASING STUDENT BURDENS

Academic libraries are also realizing the additional stresses overdue fines can place on students who are already struggling to manage their time—not to mention meeting extra expenditures on top of tuition and textbooks. Because academic libraries often need to maintain separate fiscal accounts for different kinds of transactions, maintaining those accounts involves another set of costs.

When Jeff Wahl, library director at the Front Range Community College (FRCC) Westminster Campus Library, CO, brought up the idea of going fine-free, he was pleasantly surprised that the college’s fiscal department jumped at the idea. FRCC was already working to simplify financial procedures on campus, he explains, and the library was an easy item to cross off the list. The largest community college in the state, it employs only five library staff members, who share reference, circulation, and teaching duties. “I can’t justify having any time taken away from that to put toward processing credit card receipts and putting together financial statements for the small amount of money we bring in,” says Wahl.

The dual use Westminster Campus Library shares space with a local public library that still collects fines, but navigating different fine policies with a shared integrated library system (ILS) hasn’t been difficult. Students who don’t return a book after a month have their college accounts frozen and won’t be allowed to register or drop classes until it is returned; members of the public who don’t return books are blocked on the shared ILS.

MAKING THE CASE

The advice CSL’s Crist has for libraries looking to make the case to their boards or city council is to begin with as much research as possible on their own system, starting with basic numbers: how much of the library’s operating or materials budget comes from fines, and the accumulated time, energy, and financial costs to the library to collect them. At a minimum of 30 seconds per transaction, collecting fines can significantly eat into the time of desk staff. With the additional expense of credit card transactions or collection agencies, fiscal costs add up. And the majority of those exchanges do not feel positive to either party—a more difficult cost to quantify but a critical one.

Augment the quantitative data with testimonials, Crist advises. “If you can collect some compelling stories about how fines have negatively affected people in your communities, that can be powerful.”

A board or city council may respond positively to the idea of a pilot period. Crist suggests a full year, if possible, as borrowing habits can vary seasonally. Starting with children’s materials can also help sway reluctant officials, she adds.

THE CASE FOR EQUITY

The most compelling reason, of course, is the need for every one in a community to have access to the library, regardless of their ability to pay.

When EPFL set out to make a case for going fine-free, the library’s Innovation Team interviewed staff at other systems that had eliminated fines, reviewed those libraries’ policies and procedures, and looked internally at how much revenue EPFL’s fines were generating (in this case, less than one quarter of one percent of the overall budget). A public advisory council of city residents offered input from a patron perspective. Finally, the team gathered statistics on not only which neighborhoods were seeing the most fines collected but where the greatest number of blocked users lived—which proved to be in the library’s lowest-income communities. (Similarly, SLCPL found that its three branches serving a predominantly lower-income population accounted for 14 percent of circulation and 32 percent of blocked cards.)

Erin Schmändt, director of the Caro Area District Library (CADL), MI, considered going fine-free for several years before deciding the library board would be open to the idea. The CADL service area is largely rural and low income, with a state mental hospital and a number of group homes in the area. Library policy was to block patrons who owed more than $10 not only from checkouts but from in-library computer use; in a community with low Internet access, this impacted everyone from schoolchildren to job hunters.

Schmändt gathered articles about libraries that had made the transition, printed them out, and made packets for her board members in September 2017. When the board met in October it had some reservations, chiefly about losing revenue. She crunched the numbers to show that the library would only lose $2,000 a year out of a $515,000 budget—an amount the library could easily absorb—and stressed that the library would still bill for lost items. That November, the seven-member board agreed to a trial period of one year, which was implemented on January 1.

Although that year is not yet over, Schmändt doesn’t imagine the board will want to return to collecting fees. “I have fewer people in collections than I did in the past,” she notes, pointing out that since the spring, card sign-ups are up by about 50 percent.

Still, it’s the stories that resonate most. Shortly after CADL waived fines, Schmändt recalls, a girl came in who would be starting at the nearby middle school that fall. A constant reader, she had racked up so many fines that her parents had taken away her library card. “And she was just ecstatic that we were going fine-free,” says Schmändt. “She…said, ‘I’m going to be reading so much, I’ll be here after school every day!’ She was so happy to come back.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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