Should libraries charge patrons when they make late returns?
That’s the question the Philadelphia library system is mulling. Six years ago, Philadelphia eliminated its fines for children under 12 years old, but now, some cities across the country are eliminating late fees for all users.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker raised the issue last month after Chicago became the latest — and the largest — public library system in the country to go fine-free for materials returned after the due date. Ultimately the decision would be up to the library’s board of trustees, though City Council approves the library budget and can sway public opinion.
The Inquirer turned to Dawn Wacek, a Wisconsin librarian who gave a TED Talk in support of eliminating fees, to debate the issue with Bradley P. Tolppanen, a professor of Library Services and the head of circulation services at Booth Library at Eastern Illinois University.
In almost any city in the United States where public libraries exist, you will find mission statements that mirror that of your own library. “The mission of the Free Library of Philadelphia is to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” Your library states that it is "a welcoming and inclusive public space and strongly believes in promoting understanding and community engagement.” Your library, like most, knows that access to information is a democratizing force. “The library exists to provide opportunities for discussion supported by educational resources, access to a vast array of information, and ideas that transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion.”
Hundreds of thousands of residents have library cards, checking out millions of items each year. Libraries exist as one of the last truly free third places (after home and work) for gathering, learning, and connecting our citizens to one another and to the broader world.
But like many libraries across the country, yours is currently negating these lofty aspirations and achievements by charging fines of its borrowers for late, lost, or damaged materials. Philadelphia must eliminate these punitive fines in order to meet its own goals and continue to shine as a library for the entire community.
. There are strongly held beliefs in our profession, dating back to the early 19th century, that fees are the only way to teach the public how to use our materials responsibly. But the reality is that fines don’t do what we think they do. Some studies have shown that fines result in no change in behavior. In fact, there are better ways to help our community members share library materials in equitable ways.
We know that many library users are living in poverty. While the percentage of residents in Philadelphia with incomes below the poverty line has recently dropped to below 25%, that is still an enormous sector of the population for whom fines can quickly seem insurmountable. With the ability to check out up to 50 items, a 12-year-old can exceed the $5 blocked access limit by being only a couple of days late with materials. Someone who is out of work and needs resume help may not visit the library if they know their card is blocked. People who are afraid of fines will often choose not to use the library at all.
And remember, the issue isn’t that people with lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be late returning things, but the fact that the result of their lateness is that they can no longer use the library. Users with the resources to pay late fines do so without a second thought. They are rarely influenced to change their behavior.
If fines don’t work to get materials back, and in fact, penalize our patrons who arguably need the services of public libraries the most, then what is the solution?
It is simple. Eliminate fines and use the model that is working for libraries from San Francisco to St. Paul to Chicago to Denver. Allow checkout of more materials only when previous materials are returned. This incentivizes return, encourages use by patrons from all walks of life, and ensures that patrons need not fear the library. The 1% of library revenue that will be lost can be absorbed, and the intensive staff time used to collect fines can be better spent on all of the programs and services that the Philadelphia Free Library already does so beautifully.
Dawn Wacek is youth services manager at La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin.
Library fines for overdue books have been a longstanding practice in libraries in the United States, at both public institutions and colleges. These financial penalties are usually set as a small amount of money charged per day for each book or other library item that has been kept out past the due date. As recently as a 2017 survey, it was found that 92% of surveyed libraries charged fines. However, in recent years the move toward libraries as fine-free environments has gathered significant momentum with Chicago Public Library and Nashville Public Library, among others, doing away with fines. Charging patrons for the cost of lost or damaged library materials is still being retained.
In the past, many libraries have valued the collected fines as a revenue generator to supplement the library’s budget. The Webster (N.Y.) Public Library collects $71,000 in fines annually; Readers’ Advisory Librarian Jenny Paxson commented that without the fine revenue, “it would be difficult to run the library.”
While this can be the case, most libraries find that fines are a modest revenue stream representing less than 1% of the overall library budget. The Philadelphia public library system collects $400,000 a year in fines which is indeed less than a percentage point of its annual $45.7 million budget. Additionally, collecting fines requires a commitment of valuable staff time to explain and collect fines from the patrons as well as process the payments.
The most important benefit librarians have placed on fines is as a tool to ensure library items, especially the most popular and recently published books, are returned to the library before or close to the due date so that they can go back to the shelves and be available for the next user.
Currently, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s 26 copies of the best seller The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz are all checked out from with 33 people waiting on the hold list. The imposition of a moderate financial penalty has been seen as a means of ensuring that the borrowed copies of The Girl Who Lived Twice are brought back to the library branch on time and thus made available to the greatest number of patrons.
A study published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship, which I co-wrote, sought to quantify the effectiveness of fines and their impact on patron’s return behavior by comparing two university libraries. The study found that fines made a difference in return rates. People who borrowed books under a fines policy returned them before the due date at a statistically significantly higher rate. Other reports, however, have not found that fines impact return rates. The experience at Salt Lake City Library and San Rafael Public Library was that return rates remained practically unchanged after both systems dropped their fines.
A consideration of dropping library fines has to balance their impact as a barrier to access for low-income members of the community as well as children and teens against their perceived value as a mechanism to ensure the efficient return of library materials.
Bradley P. Tolppanen is a professor of Library Services and head of Circulation Services at Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University.