Why Some Libraries Are Getting Rid of Late Fees

Chicago is the latest city to eliminate late fees in order to remove barriers to library access, especially for kids. Blue Planet Studio/Shutterstock

Maybe it's happened to you at some time or another. You've sheepishly handed over a book to the librarian and had to fish around for change for the overdue fines.

But library late fees are much more than a minimal inconvenience for a valuable resource. In many low-income communities, fines can keep people from checking out books and other materials. The American Library Association calls overdue fines "a form of social inequity," saying they present "an economic barrier to access of library materials and services."

Overdue charges start at about 17 cents a day and often are capped at $5 or $10 or the cost of replacing the item, according to The Wall Street Journal. The point of library fines isn't to punish patrons; it's to encourage them to return items so other people can use them.

But some library systems are starting to eliminate fines because they say fines don't serve the intended purpose. Instead, they keep people from returning the items and using the library again because they can't afford to pay.

Chicago recently became the largest public library system in the U.S. to do away with late fees, while also erasing all outstanding fines.

"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," said Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot, in making the announcement.

"The bold reforms we're taking to make the Chicago Public Library system fine-free and forgive City Sticker debt will end the regressive practices disproportionately impacting those who can least afford it, ensure every Chicagoan can utilize our city's services and resources, and eliminate the cycles of debt and generational poverty because of a few mistakes."

According to the city's research, one in three library patrons in the south district can no longer check out items because they owe $10 or more in fines.

More cities remove fines

library book return
Research shows that fines don't make people more responsible about returning books. giuliaduepuntozero [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

Chicago is one of a growing number of library systems that is eliminating overdue fees. Phoenix recently announced it would drop charges starting this November, reports The Daily Sun. Other major systems that don't charge a late fee include Cleveland, Dallas, Dayton, Denver, Miami-Dade, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Most of these libraries still charge a lost book fee. Other library systems don't charge fines for youth materials.

You can find an updated list at the Urban Libraries Council by exploring their Fine Free Map, which you can see below.

fine free libraries map
The Fine Free Libraries Map lists locations where users don't pay fees for returning overdue materials. Urban Libraries Council

"There are several likely reasons for that trend," Curtis Rogers, director of communications for the Urban Libraries Council, tells MNN. "Including the rise of digital content lending, growing media attention and public discussion of this trend, greater research and conversation about the fine free movement in the library field, and growing research about the disproportionate impact of late fines on disadvantaged populations, including low-income individuals and children."

The American Library Association points to increasing evidence that when fines are eliminated, more people apply for library cards and more people use the library.

And for those who question whether eliminating fines will make people return things late, research shows that's not the case.

The San Francisco Library teamed with the Financial Justice Project for a report on the value of library fines called "Long Overdue." They concluded, "Overdue fines do not turn irresponsible patrons into responsible ones, they only distinguish between patrons who can afford to pay for the common mistake of late returns and those who cannot."