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What Happens When Libraries Go Fine-Free?

Library systems that have already gone fine-free say dropping fines has brought more people back to libraries and, surprisingly, hasn’t resulted in a negative effect on return times or longer holds for popular books.
Lindsey Banks
The Charlotte Ledger
Library systems that have already gone fine-free say dropping fines has brought more people back to libraries and, surprisingly, hasn’t resulted in a negative effect on return times or longer holds for popular books.

For many of us, they were our first deadlines with consequences: library book due-dates, which, if you missed them and your parents were sticklers, meant you had to shuffle up to the librarian and pay out of your allowance.

Now, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system is doing away with fines for overdue items. Mecklenburg County commissioners passed a new budget this week that includes $600,000 for a “fine free initiative.”

In doing so, the Charlotte library system is joining the ranks of hundreds of systems across the country that have already gone fine-free. The move is part of a nationwide effort to remove an economic barrier that advocates say disproportionately impacts lower-income residents and makes the library inaccessible to some community members who need it the most.

In Mecklenburg County, more than 40,000 cardholders were blocked because they had more than $10 in fines on their account, said Ann Stawski, the library system’s spokeswoman.

Tuesday’s budget adoption by commissioners wipes away those fines. Library patrons will still be responsible for replacing lost items — items are deemed lost if they’re more than 60 days overdue. And there are still limits on the number of books that can be checked out at any given time.

But what happens when systems do away with fines?

Without a financial impetus to return books, why not keep Victor Hugo’s 1,456-page "Les Misérables" out a few extra weeks without bothering to renew? Or rush to find the Harry Potter tome that’s hiding under the fourth-grader’s bed?

Will hold times for popular books, which can stretch several months on the hottest new reads, grow even longer?

The Ledger reached out to library leaders in other cities who have already gone fine-free to hear the good and the bad of making the switch.

This may come as a surprise, but several Carolinas systems that have done away with late fees say the change hasn’t increased wait times or made people take longer to return books — although in some cases, the changes happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, so more reliable data is still to come.

In Cabarrus, Hold Times Have Held Steady

Cabarrus County eliminated fees in August 2020, so data showing the effect of the move “is a little skewed this year” due to COVID-19, said library director Emery Ortiz.

“We definitely saw a lot of people coming back, and we’ve been able to resume services to people who previously had cards blocked from overdue fines,” Ortiz said.

“We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback about it,” she said. “I haven’t seen any complaints about holds being longer, we really haven’t had an issue with books coming back drastically later than they would have before. People are still responsible for paying for damaged or lost items.”

Cabarrus’ library system, like most, adheres to a ratio system that triggers staff to purchase more copies of a book once its hold list has reached a certain length.

Ortiz said those ratios haven’t triggered the purchases of more books than normal since instituting the no-fine policy, which means books aren’t staying out any longer than they were before.

“Even with all the new titles that have come out over COVID, we haven’t seen the need to increase our initial orders,” she said. “At the end of the day, people are responsive to what public libraries stand for, and they understand that they’re shared resources.”

In Durham, Return-Times Shortened

The Durham County Library system also did away with fines during the pandemic, with its new rules taking effect July 1, and “the initial and continued reaction has been nothing but wonderful,” said Stephanie Bonestell, the library’s spokeswoman.

“We had done a lot of research on how this has affected other library systems, and did they find that people were keeping items out longer, and what we found, in general, [was] that it really actually increased return times — it made them better,” she said.

Most People Are 'Very Honest Library Users'

Many library directors have wanted to abolish fines for years, said Melanie Huggins, president-elect of the Public Library Association and the executive director of Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, which began phasing out library fees four years ago.

“Many of us have always felt like fines should not be barriers to library usage; that fines were meant to incentivize people to bring their items back to us, and I think the reality is that most people do — they’re very honest library users,” she said. “But for the people who maybe have complex lives, maybe it’s more difficult for them to stay on a schedule or remember to bring things back.”

She continued: “It’s easy for those of us with means and stability to question why people can’t bring items back. But the truth is, we don’t want fines to be punitive and we don’t want them to create barriers.”

Huggins said Richland Library started the process of going fine-free four years ago, starting with eliminating fines on children’s materials. When that went well — more families coming back into the library fold, with no real impact on return times — the library system expanded the program to include teen books and then all books and media.

Worries that abolishing fees would delay return times or increase waits for popular books “have been mostly unfounded,” Huggins said. “That concern about it taking longer (to get books returned) or things not being available has not been the experience in my library or other libraries.”

“The pandemic shed light on the disparities of wellbeing and lifestyle in our communities like no other thing has done before,” Huggins said. “So when you talk about equity and people having the wherewithal to remember to bring their library book back, how important is that in a global pandemic?

“The message I give my team is: the goal is to get the stuff back. If they bring it back, that’s what we want.”

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission.

Cristina Bolling is managing editor of The Charlotte Ledger: cristina@cltledger.com