Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Chicago Public Library became the largest system to eliminate late fees, a move that will increase access for low-income families. Will more libraries follow?
Chicago libraries will no longer collect late fees starting this month, becoming the largest public library system in the U.S. to do away with overdue fines. The city is also erasing all currently outstanding fees, which is good news to the more than 343,000 cardholders whose borrowing privileges have been revoked for accruing at least $10 in unpaid fines.
Chicago is one of a growing number of cities trying to make access to libraries more equitable. Its own data revealed that one in three cardholders in the public library’s south district, where many of the communities are of color and living in poverty, cannot check out books. That’s compared to one in six people in the wealthier north district. It’s likely that many who have unpaid fines fail to pay them because they don’t have the disposable income to do so.
“Like too many Chicagoans, I know what it is like to grow up in financially-challenging circumstances and understand what it is like to be just one bill or one mistake away from crushing debt,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said a statement. One in five delinquent cardholders are children under 14, according to the city.
By imposing fines, and prohibiting people from borrowing books when the fines add up, the libraries are effectively driving away the very residents who need them the most.
Under Chicago Public Library’s new policy, a checked out item will automatically be renewed 15 times as long as there are no holds on it. Afterwards, the item will be marked lost, and the library will charge the borrower its market value, though charges will be cleared as long as the borrower returns it.
The public libraries that have moved to reduce fines
The decision to remove fines is a growing nationwide movement. Already, dozens of U.S. libraries have fully or partially eliminated overdue fines (usually for teens and children), according to a “fine-free” map from the Urban Libraries Council (ULC). Just this year, public libraries in cities like Phoenix, Dallas, and Palm Beach, Florida, have changed their policy, and Curtis Rogers, ULC’s communications director, expects more libraries and cities to follow suit.
San Francisco Public Library reformed its overdue fine policy last month. Before that, more than a third of library cardholders owed libraries money, averaging roughly $24 per adult, according to the city’s own research. Most belonged to low-income communities, African-American communities, and communities with few college graduates. Across the city, 5 percent are blocked from making full use of the library because of overdue fines, but that rate is highest at the Bayview branch, where the neighborhood’s median household income is the second-lowest of all the public library’s locations.
“Overdue fines are not distinguishing between people who are responsible and who are not,” says Rogers. “They're distinguishing between people who can and cannot use money to overcome a common oversight.”
He adds that research going as far back as the 1970s shows fears that eliminating fines will deteriorate people’s sense of civic responsibility to return books on time are unfounded. A 1983 study in North Carolina, for example, found that while overdue rates did increase in the short term at libraries without fines, there was ultimately no significant difference over a three-year period between public libraries that do and don’t collect late fees. In San Francisco, one library even saw its late-return rate drop from 9 percent to 4 percent after removing fines.
A majority of public libraries do still charge late fees—some 92 percent, according to a 2017 survey in Library Journal. And Rogers emphasizes going fine-free is not necessarily the “one single solution” for all systems. There are multiple ways libraries can break down barriers of access. Some libraries designate “amnesty” days, where all late fees are waived if residents return the overdue items. Others provide alternatives, asking for food donations or volunteer time in place of money.
For many libraries, fines make up just a small share of their operating budget. The Chicago Sun Times reports the Chicago Public Library system collects $875,000 annually in fines, which is not an insignificant amount. But the city says late fines constitute less than 1 percent of the library’s total budget. “Libraries need to look at the revenue that they're generating from fines and what is their ability to handle the risk that could potentially be involved with making this decision,” Rogers says.
He adds that so far, no library has reported large-scale negative consequences to going fine-free. In some cases, axing fines can even save libraries money by eliminating the time and cost of collecting the debt.
Dawn Wacek, the youth services manager for La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin, argues that it isn’t the library’s job to collect fines or teach its patrons responsibility. “I don't think it's our task, or that it’s mission-centric, any more than teaching people manners is,” she says. “Our role is to provide access to information.”
In 2018, she gave a TED Talk advocating for more libraries to nix fines. She admitted that she herself had gotten $500 in late fees over several years, and was fortunate enough to be able pay them. That was a different story from many La Crosse residents who were barred from checking out books because of fines. The city has since made its libraries fine-free.
Sometimes it’s political will that stands in the way, especially when members of the local governments don’t see the potential gain. That’s why Chicago’s move is encouraging even for smaller towns.
“As more and more libraries take that plunge it looks less daunting for people,” says Wacek. “There will also be some years of evidence that say, look, stuff is still coming back, more people are getting library cards, and fewer people living in poverty are blocked from having access—all good things.”