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Things I Never Learned in Library School: Should libraries charge fines?

thingineverlearnedRecently, there have been discussions on various platforms regarding whether or not libraries should charge fines. I know that they discussed this recently on Storytime Underground.  In fact, I sent this post to my mentor who is in an administrative position, which resulted in an interesting discussion.

Let me start by saying that I have often advocated against fines. My main reasoning behind this is that teens are often the patrons who become blocked by fines, which puts them in a really difficult position. Younger teens can’t drive, so it can be difficult for them to get to and from the library to return their books in a timely manner. And if they accrue fines, they are dependent on their parents or guardians to pay off these fines – which they often can’t or won’t. So now a teen who wants and needs to check out materials can’t.

The simple answer is, don’t charge fines. If you get past the long standing tradition of charging fines, it makes sense. Fines become a stumbling block to access so if we want to increase access, we should eliminate fines.

One of the main rationales behind fines is that it encourages patrons to return materials on time, or on timish. We want materials returned on time for several reasons. One, many times there are more patrons waiting in line for that book. And I know we tend to say we don’t want books sitting on the shelves, but the truth is that sometimes we do; many patrons find new and interesting materials to read that they never would have thought to look for through the act of browsing. A book can’t be discovered through browsing if it is never returned and doesn’t occasionally sit on a shelf.

We’ve all had those patrons who check out a book and keep it for months, creating for themselves a kind of personal library stocked with long overdue library books. This is one of the reasons that my mentor gave for the importance of library fines. We’re not in the business of using public tax dollars to support people’s personal library collections. So in another way, fines can also be about access, because when we get those materials back on the shelves in a timely manner, it improves access for the rest of our population. Our patrons don’t have access to long overdue books sitting in the personal collections of one patron.

Another reason to consider fines appeared in the Columbus Dispatch. You see, the Delaware County District Library in Ohio does not charge fines, a model I have often served up as an example of my see we shouldn’t charge fines argument. But not everyone is comfortable with not charging fines, and some library administrators indicated that it would mean giving up a significant portion of revenue. In Ohio, public libraries actively work to promote the benefits of libraries to the public and to state legislatures. Fines have always served as an example of libraries being fiscally responsible to the public. Why, many people argue, should we give libraries more money when they are walking back from one type of revenue resource, fines. Although if you pay much attention to your library financials, fines most likely don’t make up a very big percentage of your overall income or budget. But there is that perception that we are asking for more money from tax payers and legislators at the same time that we are discarding a potential income stream. It’s like asking for a loan from a bank after you just announced that you quit your job. And if you’ve paid any attention to the political scene here in the United States, you know that we don’t like to give money to people who we perceive aren’t doing anything to try and make it on their own. So this one is more about perception than it is truth. We know that not much income revenue is generated by fines, by the public sees abandoning fines as a dereliction of financial responsibility on our part.

So now we have to create this balance between creating policies that maintain and encourage access for individual patrons but also communicate to the public that we are being responsible with their financial investment. And make no mistake, as a tax funded entity each and every citizen has a financial investment in their local library.

Another potential solution is not to charge youth fines. This can be easier said then done because it involves the need to set up two different sets of borrowing privileges in your ILS. It also doesn’t solve the problem of adult patrons who don’t get their materials back on time and it’s important that we understand there are a lot of reasons this could happen. For example, I work in a rural community that has a high poverty rate. This means that many patrons don’t have reliable transportation and many rural communities don’t have good public transportation. So fines would disproportionately punish poorer populations, the very populations who most often need access to our materials and services.

Many libraries get around the idea of fines impeding access by allowing patrons to check out materials or sign onto public computers as long as their fines don’t go over a certain amount. In some libraries that amount can be as high as $50.00, but I have seen it be as low as $5.00. This means that if your fines go over $5.00, patrons can’t check anything out or sign onto a computer. To some people $5.00 is nothing, but to many people $5.00 is everything. It’s a meal that they will have to give up, bus fare to work, and more.

So I’ve been wrestling with this idea of fines. I have heard the concerns of administrators. I have read the concerns of library users and tax voters in the comments of online articles. I have thought about how they impact my patrons and how they can impede access. And I still come out of this debate here: in an ideal world, we shouldn’t charge fines. Yes, there will always be those patrons who abuse the system, but the truth is there are those patrons who abuse the system while we do charge fines. And yes, I can hear the concerns of voters and legislators and concede their points. But what I can’t get past is the teen that stands before me at the reference desk who just needs to check out a copy of The Outsiders because they have to read it for school and the closest book store is over an hour away and they don’t have Internet access at home or a credit card to buy the book online. Now our policy of fines are preventing a teen who just wants to graduate from being successful and this will have far reaching implications way past the $45.00 fines that sits on their card because they couldn’t get a parent to bring them back to the library in a timely manner that one time when they were 8. So I will keep advocating that libraries reconsider their position on fines.

What are your thoughts?


  1. The library in my hometown has a fine limit, at which point patrons can’t check out materials. I’m not sure, but I think the amount is $10.00. It’s a tough conversation, to be sure, with no real easy answer.

  2. I am a public high school librarian. We also go back and forth about charging fines. We currently still do, but we do not block access no matter how much a student owes. We simply remind students each time they check out that they do have a fine and regularly send out electronic reminders. This year we also held an amnesty day. If a student brought back an overdue book on April 1st (The day had a “joke’s on us” theme.) all fines were waived. If a student had a previously accrued fine (this did not apply to lost or damaged books) they could come in and pay just 50%. It was not a perfect way to handle it, but as both of us were new to the library we wanted to try to clear up fines and get some long overdue books back. We still have not decided if we will continue with fines when school starts again.

  3. My Library went fine free a couple years ago and it has mostly worked very well. BUT, we were in the position you describe where fines were not making up more than a very small percentage of our income and there are still rules – if you have an item that is more than two weeks overdue, you now get charged for the item. If you return the item (before you are sent to collections) all the charges come off your card. It’s how we decided to balance getting our materials back with getting rid of the day to day fine hassles. Also – the no fines ONLY applies to our patrons, not to any reciprocal borrowers.

    For the most part, our patrons have received this very positively. It has also saved on staff time – there’s fewer patrons arguing that their couple of bucks of fines need to be removed and staff can spend the time they used to spend on transactions that were often under a dollar on other things. However, some of that staff time is spent explaining to shocked patrons just how they ended up with $90 charged to their card (you failed to return two video games…..just bring them back and it will go away……) so there’s definitely pro and cons. Overall I think getting rid of overdue fines is a good choice, but it took awhile for our library to make it work.

  4. At our public library we hold a Fine Amnesty Month once a year where patrons can bring in canned food to wipe their fines. It does not have to be an equal amount of food, so a 50 cent can of beans can wipe out $45 in fines, or what have you. We used to do it in Thanksgiving and have recently moved it to the spring, both because the food pantry said it’s harder to get food at that time, and because we wanted to make sure students had a relatively easy way to clear their accounts before the summer and required reading. It’s one way that people on a limited budget can get back on track without breaking the bank. (And, as we often tell patrons who seem put out that there isn’t a 1:1 ratio of fine to food, we often get patrons with a 10 cent fine who bring in whole bags of food, so it generally evens out.) It’s good community development all around, as the food gets donated to a local pantry, and really no one is going to argue that we’re being fiscally irresponsible by waiving fines while trying to collect food for people in need. It’s not a perfect system, but at least it’s something to do to try to balance out tension between the perception that fines are bringing in money and the need for people to retain access to a service.

  5. I work at a private high school library and we do not have fines. If a student hasn’t returned an item by the end of the term, a charge for the current cost to replace the item is sent home.

  6. This is something we’ve talked about a lot recently at the public library where I work, including a discussion of getting rid of fines completely. Much of it has sprung out of our Read Downs, where patrons can check in at the desk and for every 15 minutes they read we take a dollar off their fines. It encourages reading and builds a really nice atmosphere of having people in the library and reading. It also keeps the onus of responsibility on the patron (which I think is necessary for some adults who always have an excuse for why they shouldn’t have to pay their fines even though they kept popular items out for weeks past the due date). My branch, and a few others in the system, are committed to offering the read down to patrons year round, outside of our scheduled and advertised read down months. Other branches are not as committed to such and option and it is leading to a lot of debate for us as to what the library’s official policy should be.

    We’ve already removed fines on all JUV and Teen material including DVDs, but adult materials still accrue fines. So this is great for young people who want materials aimed at them, but it doesn’t fix everything.
    We also offer Fresh Starts, where we wipe out fines (at library employee discretion) for fines accrued by youths that are impeding their ability to check out. In most cases it is a clear case of parents making cards for their babies or toddlers, checking out a bunch of DVDs and either never returning them or returning them late since the card hasn’t been active since the kid was 2 or 4 or 7.
    I love the idea of fine amnesty and having donations of food items to wipe out fines, and I’m excited to hear more in this discussion!

    • Love the idea of Read Downs, Anna! This is especially helpful for children and teens who, as Karen mentioned, may not have the funds to pay down fees. I’d love if our library system implemented something like this.

  7. Mary Morrison says:

    I don’t charge fines. I think it’s so important to keep teens reading. I don’t want a student to be afraid to walk into the middle school library because they owe ten cents. I do charge for lost or damaged books. However students that can’t afford to pay those fines can work them off by helping in the library. I’m careful to make that a pleasant experience as well. My main goal is to get kids in the door and get them reading and I make all decisions with that goal in mind.

  8. I used to work at a library system in Washington State, and they did not charge fines for overdue books as long as the book was returned (even if it was returned damaged). Many customers decided to pay for the cost of replacing the book without any pressure from us, but those who couldn’t afford to were not penalized. We didn’t advertise our no fine policy, and we didn’t send anyone to collections. There were some customers with charges on their account for materials that were never returned, but the majority did bring back their materials because they weren’t afraid of fees.

    I think when a library charges fees, it’s easy for those fees to get out of hand. At my current job, I have customers come in with charges of $50+ and they feel like they’ll never be able to pay it down, so they don’t return at all. We charge $1 a day for late DVDs, so if you take 10 DVDs out and they’re a week late, you’re already at $70. I know we need to encourage our customers to be responsible with materials, but IMO charging outrageous fees keeps people away more than it teaches a lesson.

    • You are absolutely correct, as it begins to feel like a punishment over time. If the items are returned undamaged, why can’t some of the fees be forgiven? I also like the idea of volunteering your time at the library, in lieu of fines. I feel this is a win-win situation.

  9. I am the YA Dept librarian for a rural city of roughly 100k people; teen population mostly at-risk, non English speaking with parents who work 2+ jobs to make ends meet. most of my teens come once, when they’re new, and their parents don’t let them get cards because they don’t think they’re “responsible” enough. However, when something comes back late, it’s on the parents card, and then the parent blames the teen for the fine when, in fact, it’s the parents fault for not brining them ALL back to the library on time. I never see those teens again after that. Not only were they shamed by their parents (in front of library staff), but they now owe money that no one can pay. Those teens don’t get allowance. But they are the ones who need the library the most. I have asked administration many times that if maybe I can write a YA policy for cards to give them a learning curve more acceptable for their age group (maybe a minimum check out of 5 items for a period of time with fines half the cost of usual until they “mature” into 90 days or whatever without going over $5 etc…there are SO many ways to try it). the admin has been here 5 years, has NO library background prior to this (is a MBA in PR), but the Circ supervisor (who has been here 20+ years) has cozied up to her (so much so I cant tell where she ends and the admin begins) insists that if we “give them an inch they’ll take a mile”. These are also the administrators who cut me down constantly for being “a millennial” and telling me how “technology can’t cure all” and “in my day, there was only ONE winner”…they don’t want to hear anything that challenges their perspective of teens as a “problem population” and won’t give us a chance to even prove that they’re not. It’s the worst case of patron discrimination I’ve ever seen and it’s system wide. The staff even treat me like a YA dept librarian is “less than” an adult reference librarian or a children’s librarian. They’ve told me that I “got lucky” that someone “made up my position”. They won’t even let me do presentations educating them with YALSA’s Call to Action or YALS statistics. No wonder the teens steer clear of here. It’s so miserable. I wish there was something I could do…

    • Stann, that sounds like a nightmare. Sending you good thoughts, and I’ll cross my fingers that your policies change!

  10. The library system where I work does not charge late fees. All of our items check out for two weeks and can be renewed twice. If you don’t return your item within two weeks of it becoming overdue than your account just locks preventing you from checking anything else out until we get the overdue items. Once you do bring the items back your account opens back up with no penalty. That way people never have to be scared to bring back an item even if it is seriously overdue. We just want the item (and the patron) back! We also never limit use to the public computers, in fact we don’t even check for library cards in order to use them. People do check in at the desk so we can keep stats and know when someone has been on over their time limit but we don’t restrict it based on having a card, good standing or not. It works well for us and it keeps people feeling like they can use the library.

  11. Nothing says buying into the stereotype of lazy, irresponsible poor people, than NOT charging fines for library books. Our mayor in St. Paul states that there is no access to libraries for poor people if they have to pay fines. Say what? He happens to be Black and I don’t know if he realizes what a loaded comment that is! So, I guess what he is saying is, If you’re poor you don’t need to have ANY responsibility? Ridiculous! Furthermore, if he had done his homework, he’d have realized that kids and teens in St. Paul already have fines waved. So, is it the adults we’re asking to wave fines for? Something to ponder here…..


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