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Philly’s Free Library system poised to eliminate fines for overdue books

Philadelphia would join a growing number of U.S. cities that have eliminated library late fees.

Beth Underwood holds her baby, Gertrude, in the Queen Memorial Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in Point Breeze.
Beth Underwood holds her baby, Gertrude, in the Queen Memorial Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in Point Breeze.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia may soon stop charging fines for overdue library books, joining Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities where libraries have acted this year to end late fees.

The trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia could vote to eliminate the fines at their Dec. 11 meeting, the board’s president told a City Council committee Wednesday.

“This is an issue that has moved very quickly" in big cities across the country, said Pamela Pryor Dembe, chairwoman of the library board and a Common Pleas Court judge.

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The measure has the backing of Mayor Jim Kenney, who has called overdue fines a “punitive practice” that creates barriers deterring people from using the library. “This policy is counterintuitive to advancing our city’s broader educational and literacy goals, and the time has come for it to end,” he said in a statement.

The Free Library’s current policy imposes fines of 25 cents per day for a late book. Once library members owe $5, library privileges are restricted and cardholders cannot check out or reserve items. The maximum fee for paperbacks, pamphlets, or periodicals is $5, but fees continue to accumulate to a maximum of $10 for hardcovers and other materials.

Children under 12 who borrow materials using a children’s library card don’t face late fees, but cannot check out books if they have an overdue book.

A resolution sponsored by Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker led to Wednesday’s hearing before the Legislative Oversight Committee. Parker said she was inspired by Chicago’s elimination of library late fees this year. But Council has no authority over the policy; the library system’s trustees control it.

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By eliminating late fees, the library would forgo nearly $424,000 in annual revenue, based on what it collected in the last fiscal year, said Siobhan A. Reardon, the library’s president and director. Of that amount, $276,000 is returned to the city each year and the remainder is used for programming. The Free Library’s current budget is $52 million.

Reardon told the Council committee Wednesday that the Kenney administration agreed to renegotiate the $276,000 obligation, and that the library system would find alternative sources for programs that have been funded by fine revenue.

When the library trustees first began looking into fine elimination more than a year ago, “we had virtually no information — no large city had done it, we didn’t know what it would mean in terms of getting materials back,” Dembe said. She said the city’s Finance Department was also skeptical about the lost revenue. But other cities have changed their policies and have had encouraging results, she said.

“The Free Library’s commitment to greater access, customer service, innovation, and equity are the core values of our institution, and fines create a barrier to fulfilling that commitment," Reardon said.

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The Urban Libraries Council, in written testimony to the Council committee, said Chicago’s elimination of fees resulted in a 240% increase in book returns over a three-week period last month.

Fine revenue for the Philadelphia library system decreased by 40% between fiscal years 2012 and 2019, Reardon said. As a result of the fine policy, about 21% of active cardholders have overdue fines and 14% of active cardholders are blocked from checking out materials because they have hit the maximum fine.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify the fee amount at which library privileges are currently restricted.