A Fine Idea

Austin, TX, is the latest public-library district to eliminate late fees for overdue books

The rising tide of censorship has occupied center stage of late in news about book access. Here’s a far better trend–eliminating late fees for public library users.

Austin is the latest city to do away with the charges, voting Feb. 17 to expand its fee-free policy to all materials. It nixed late fines for children’s materials in 2018, a year before the American Library Association recommended that public libraries eliminate all fines to encourage usage and expand access.

“We want to make sure our resources are available to those most impacted by the fines,” Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks said in a statement.

Austin becomes one of about 400 public library systems across the United States that have eliminated fines, including New York, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles County.

Proponents of the policy say it boosts return rates, since patrons no longer skip visits if they’re unable to pay late fees. A fine system also erects a barrier to access to library materials, they add.

“I found (fines) to be getting in the way of our mission; which is to provide access to as many people as we possibly can so they can borrow books, use the computers, take our classes and attend our programs,” New Jersey librarian and co-founder of End Library Fines Andy Woodworth told Arizona public radio station KJZZ. “And when I started doing my own research into it and finding articles in printed press as well as academic journals, there was absolutely nothing to show that fines encourage people to return books. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.”

In Chicago, for example, the library went fine-free and erased all outstanding debt in 2019. That set off a spike in returned materials, the library’s marketing director told The Hill.

“The first few weeks after the announcement we had insane circulation numbers,” said Patrick Molloy, Chicago Public Library’s director of marketing and governmental relations, citing a 240 percent increase in returned materials.

Those spikes in returns and usage have replicated nationally. And the beneficiaries of these policies are often patrons who wouldn’t be able to access books or media in other ways. In San Diego, the library wiped out debt and changed its policy after a city study found that almost half of the patrons with suspended accounts due to late fees lived in two of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

In northwest Missouri, Rolling Hills Consolidated librarian Michelle Mears said eliminating fines has been especially important for the youngest library patrons.

“And so the worst part was when you’d see parents bringing their children in and you’d overhear them say something like you can only have one thing because we can’t afford these overdue fines,” Mears told ABC News.

“So parents, themselves, were looking at that financial liability and restricting their kids usage of the library because of it. And of course that’s crazy because kiddos need books, they need so many books, they need to be surrounded by books, they shouldn’t be restricted or punished because there is this possibility of a financial punishment for turning in something late.”

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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