US Libraries Go Fine-Free

As penalty charges for overdue books are waived, bookworms are flocking back. Particularly amongst low income households.

In recent years the idea of eliminating library fines has been adopted by one city after another across the States, triggered by the original initiative in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017. As a result, people, especially those on low-incomes, have returned books and gone back to using their local libraries.


There are powerful benefits of abandoning the concept of charging people who return their books late, particularly as fines are as much a social justice issue as a simple economic one. As with lots of fines, overdue book fines discriminate based on income. For instance, in New York, of children and teens with blocked public library memberships, nearly half came from branches in “high-needs” neighborhoods. This suggests that for those for whom a fine is a financial burden often simply stop using the library, while wealthier people can just return their late books and pay the penalty.


Library use fosters reading, and reading and literacy leads to better health and life outcomes. It’s a win-win for the whole community.


And sure enough, eliminating fines works. When fines aren’t in the way, people return their overdue books and begin using their libraries again. For instance, when the San Francisco Public Library held a six week fine amnesty, over half a million items were returned - including a book that had been taken out a century earlier - and 5,000 local citizens had their memberships restored.


So, what was the point of fines in the first place? Well, obviously, the idea was that it would persuade people to return their books by a given date and give others the chance to enjoy them. In other words, aren't fines an effective incentive for people to return their items? It turns out, for the most part, they are not. In the ‘80s the Philadelphia library doubled its fines in the hope of getting more books returned on time. It had zero effect on return rates and overall borrowing went down.


In fact, studies show that fines have almost no effect on the timely return of books - the stick doesn't work. Fines not only don’t encourage borrowers to return books, they also act as a deterrent - especially those on low-incomes - from using the libraries at all.


So, what's the net result? Firstly, as fines used to account for less than one percent of library incomes, it's really not that much of a deal to waive them. Particularly as this revenue was almost completely offset by the cost of chasing fines. Second, a number of library systems have seen patronage rise as overdue books are returned and outstanding fines are forgiven. In Chicago, for instance, the number of returned overdue books jumped from 900 a month to 1,650, and 11,000 of the people returning them renewed or replaced their library cards. Now, more books in Chicago are being checked out overall - circulation has increased by seven percent from before fines were cut.

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Books by Bike for Kids in Rural Sri Lanka

During his spare time, mostly at the weekend, Mahinda Dasanayaka packs his motorbike with books and rides his mobile library to underprivileged children in backward rural parts of Sri Lanka. Having witnessed the hardships faced by children whose villages have no library facilities, Dasanayaka wanted to help, and had the idea for his library on wheels. Three years ago he started Book and Me and it has become hugely popular with the children he visits. “There are some kids who had never seen a children’s storybook until I went to their villages,” he said. More...