My first reaction when someone told me that libraries across the U.S. have been eliminating library fines was cynicism. If libraries don’t hold people accountable, how on earth will they incentivize people to return their books? People will check out books and never bother to bring them back. Book thieves will descend upon our hallowed institutions and plunder the shelves until nothing remains but a cavernous, empty shell. Anarchy will reign! We need rules and consequences, dammit! Punishment for sloppy borrowing!
After all, aren’t there plenty of rules in life that, if we don’t follow them, we have to pay a fine? Financial penalties for not following the rules are simply a part of life. Speeding. Late tax payments. Jaywalking. Why should libraries be any different? If you borrow a book, you should return it on time, and if you can’t manage to be a responsible borrower, you should pay a fine. Besides, library fines are a great source of revenue to keep libraries running. Right?
Nope. Turns out, none of this is true. Libraries are jumping on the no-fine bandwagon because they’ve done the math, and, according to a detailed report from the city of San Francisco in conjunction with the city’s Financial Justice Project, when libraries don’t institute fines for late books, they perform better on just about every metric — including ethics.
Allow us to explain:
Library fines disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, and communities without advanced degrees.
The above statement might read to some like, “poor people don’t return their books!” Um, no. Library patrons across all ethnicities, economic strata, and education levels accrue book fines at the same rate. Everyone forgets to turn in their library books because life is a shit show no matter who you are.
Here’s the difference though: The people who aren’t living on a financial razor’s edge and can afford to pay the fine eventually bring their books back and resume use of the library’s services. And the fine they pay represents a tiny percentage of their income.
Compare that to a family struggling to buy groceries each week. They’re more likely to put off returning their library books — as well as using the library — simply because they can’t afford to pay the fine. Not only that, but the fines they do accrue would represent a higher percentage of their income.
Eliminating fines doesn’t remove the motivation for people to return their books.
In most cases, removing fines does the opposite. Libraries that have eliminated fines have reported no increases in late returns. Some libraries even report an improvement in on-time returns. Milton Public Library in Vermont experienced an increase in on-time returns after they eliminated fines, and Vernon Public Library in Illinois reported that the average number of days an item was overdue was cut nearly in half.
It’s important to note, most libraries cutting fines do maintain a system in which patrons are required to replace or pay for lost items. This helps ensure that libraries don’t experience a loss of materials. The system isn’t a free-for-all; it just removes the financially punitive element that disproportionately affects lower income folks.
Fines aren’t actually a good source of revenue for libraries anyway.
The San Diego Public Library completed a financial analysis of the cost of fine-related transactions among its staff. Assuming one minute per transaction, they calculated that staff racked up 6,500 hours of fine-collecting work, labor which totaled over one million dollars. They only brought in $600,000 — a loss. In other words, fines aren’t worth the effort it takes to get people to pay them.
Fines are not as instructive as we’d like to think they are.
As a punishment, fines don’t work, at least not when it comes to library books. The analysis from the San Francisco report revealed that despite the prevalence of fines, “one-fifth of print materials get returned after their due date, and more than one-third of library patrons hold debt on their account at any given time.” In other words, people were accepting that the fines were being assessed but weren’t modifying their behavior. As the report noted, “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.”
Eliminating fines improves the relationship between library staff and their patrons.
Librarians don’t generally get into the business of lending books because they’ve always dreamed of chasing down people with overdue books. Most likely, they work at the library because they enjoy helping people in their community find the information or joy they seek from books and all the other free experiences that libraries offer. Putting library staff in a position of conflict with the very people they want to help does nothing positive for anyone. Unsurprisingly, the libraries interviewed in the San Francisco report noted that the elimination of fines had boosted staff morale. And who doesn’t love a cheerful librarian?
The library is supposed to be a place where everyone can come to learn and be a participant in their community, regardless of their background or how much money they have. Libraries are supposed to be equalizers. Everyone keeps books out past their due date. It isn’t fair for the patrons with the least to get slammed with fees that take up a bigger percentage of their income. This, above all the other really good reasons that library fines are impractical, should matter the most to us. Because no one should feel discouraged from going to their local library.