Fine-Free: It's Time | Editorial

The movement in public libraries toward eliminating late fines for borrowed materials is equitable—and practical.

Fine-free is equitable—and practical

Meredith Schwartz head shotFebruary 2022 will mark a decade since I came to LJ. The field has changed a lot during that time. At least one of those changes, I feel, is an unambiguous good, and will make a lasting difference: the movement in public libraries toward eliminating late fines for borrowed materials.

While some early adopters were already experimenting with eliminating fines as early as the 1970s, for most libraries in 2012 the possibility wasn’t even on the radar. Fines were a fact of life.

By the time LJ conducted its first Fines and Fees survey in 2017, things had changed somewhat. While more than 90 percent of libraries still collected fines, about a third were considering eliminating them. A handful of districts, mostly midsize, had done away with fines, and in the next two years several larger systems followed suit. Even more dipped a toe in the waters by eliminating fines on student cards or for children’s materials.

Questions abounded, including whether patrons would return their books without the incentive of avoiding a penalty, what impact it would have on budgets to lose the revenue fines provided, and whether libraries were forgoing the opportunity to teach personal responsibility.

These are reasonable questions, and they’ve been answered by the libraries that, in effect, served as pilot projects. Those that went fine free found that yes, patrons still return books. They also take out a lot more than they did when they were deterred by fear of fines or prevented by having their cards locked because they couldn’t pay. Some return books they previously held on to because they couldn’t pay the fine. And while there’s no guarantee that every library can manage without the revenue, many found the loss wasn’t as great as they feared once they set against it the money and staff time they no longer had to spend on trying to collect.

We’ve seen that fines disproportionately harm patrons with the lowest income. That’s not only counterproductive, since those users tend to rely on library services most, it’s also evidence that paying fines isn’t a matter of personal responsibility. If it were, they would impact all demographic groups equally. It’s a matter of socioeconomics, and holding individuals responsible for structural problems is not a lesson libraries should teach.

Anecdotally, we’ve also heard that going fine free helps facilitate more friendly, less adversarial customer service relationships—something sorely needed now.

Library governance being quintessentially local, what felt politically possible (also called the Overton Window) was slow to shift. But each time a library made the switch, media attention made it more thinkable for libraries around it to consider the same step.

And then the pandemic happened. For many libraries, forgiving fines went from a debate to simple necessity in a matter of days. Libraries couldn’t take books back, or process them. They didn’t know how dangerous it would be to handle books, or for how long, and didn’t have any place to put a backlog of returns. Many U.S. public libraries suddenly had involuntary fine-free experiments underway.

Of course, given the tremendous number of pandemic challenges, it took a while for reexamining fines to reach the top of many to-do lists. But as libraries move from the first acute crisis to a longer-term evaluation of what they have learned from their COVID-19 pivots, many see that going fine free is doable in their communities—they’ve already done it. Now the question is, why go back?

One such community is New York City, whose three systems (Brooklyn, New York, and Queens public libraries) all went fine free this fall (see “NYC Libraries Go Fine Free”). Their sheer size, along with the concentration of media in New York, made the decision national news, and a gift to libraries that have been wondering how to start the conversation with local stakeholders about going—or staying—fine free.

It isn’t easy to make a case for giving up revenue at a time of belt-tightening. But that’s also when it is most needed, because library users are tightening their belts, too. There will never be a better time than now. LJ plans to repeats its Fines and Fees survey in 2022, and I hope to find that fine-free is the new normal.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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