For generations, librarians assumed the threat of fines incentivized people to bring back books on time. But lately, that assumption has been coming under scrutiny, leaving many librarians to wonder if the idea of fines is one whose time may be past due.
Just this summer, the town of Simsbury announced it’s trying an experiment. For the next year, its public library will be fine free. That means no overdue charges on most checked-out items.
“We’re hoping … people that have stopped using the library because they had overdues, will come back,” said Lisa Karim, director at Simsbury Public Library.
Lately, Karim and other librarians across Connecticut and the nation have been scrutinizing their late fees — asking a basic question, do overdue fines work?
Karim said in Simsbury at least, it seems like the answer is no. For decades, the town didn’t fine seniors for overdue books. But when the library dug into its checkout and return data, it found virtually no difference in return rates for seniors versus general cardholders — who are on the hook financially for overdue items.
“What we determined is that fines are really just a barrier to access — to people using our materials and our services,” Kairm said.
The American Library Association agrees. In a recent national resolution, it urged librarians to eliminate fines, which it said prevent access to library materials and services and can serve as a deterrent for low-income families who stand to benefit the most from community library services.
“Not only do fines fail to incentivize timely returns of materials … they also deter borrowing completely,” said Ramiro Salazar, president of the Public Library Association, which represents thousands of librarians nationwide. “It is a movement. Hundreds of public libraries have made the decision in the last couple of years to go fine free,” Salazar said.
In Simsbury, Karim said fines particularly punished young readers. She said 70% of the cardholders previously blocked because of fines were children and teens.
“That’s a critical age that you want these individuals to have access to the library so that you’re growing lifelong learners from the onset,” Karim said.
Bridget Quinn-Carey, chief executive officer at Hartford Public Library, said she saw fines punish kids in her city repeatedly, when an overdue book or DVD quickly would rack up enough fines to block a card.
“And that breaks our little librarian hearts,” Quinn-Carey said. “When you see a kid come into the library and can’t check out materials.”
So in April of last year, Hartford eliminated fines for children and teens. Quinn-Carey said it’s not a “get-out-of-jail free” card. There are still fees if materials never come back.
This September, Elaine Braithwaite, interim city librarian in Bridgeport, said her library plans to roll out a special card for kids, which will let them take out two books.
“They’ll be a message on the back saying ‘no fines’,” Braithwaite said. “We’ve decided, you know, if we have to have a few lost books — we think that it’s more important that a child does have a book in their hand. So we’re not really going to even bill them for a book.”
Braithwaite said fines bring less than half-a-percent of her library’s overall budget.
Simsbury and Hartford reported similarly small fee-to-budget ratios. But that’s not the case in all libraries, said Kate Byroade, immediate past president of the Connecticut Library Association.
Byroade said many librarians want to eliminate fines, but right now some really need the money to replace lost and damaged material.
“So those libraries are reluctant to give up the fine income, but they would like to have a different way of handling that,” said Byroade.
At her library in Colchester, Byroade said about 12 years ago, they hit on a simple solution. One that immediately made the circulation desk less stressful for librarians and patrons, while still bringing in some much-needed cash.
They just put a jar on the counter.
“The jar says, ‘If you have an overdue, what you pay is up to you,’” Byroade said.
“If someone is charged a 50 cent fine, they can pay 50 cents. They can pay a dollar. They can pay a nickel. We clear the fine.”