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Notebook Law

Library fines—gone with the wind?

(Krieg Barrie)


Library fines—gone with the wind?

Many libraries have stopped charging for overdue books

The antechamber of the Mesquite Library in Phoenix, Ariz., is full of natural light and potted palms. Sporting a ball cap, Valerie Jones strides through, but turns back to give her opinion on library fines. Would a library without overdue book fines help her? “Yes!” 

Jones has a 6-year-old son who checks out 20 to 30 books at a time. She encourages his appetite, but when it’s time to return the books, it’s impossible to find them all. Whatever she doesn’t return incurs a fine. The fines build up, her library account is blocked, and she can only afford to pay in installments. The result: Her son stops checking out books.

Starting in November, this will no longer be a problem. The “All Fines Forgiven” initiative at Phoenix Public Library branches such as Mesquite will remove daily fines for overdue books and forgive existing balances. Patrons still have to pay a replacement fee after 50 days, but if they return the book, the fee is waived.

Phoenix isn’t the first city to end library fines, but it is the biggest so far. About 200 other library systems in the United States have become fine-free. In January, the American Library Association passed a resolution encouraging all libraries to do so.

Eliminating fines evokes a mixed response from patrons. Some, like Jones, welcome the idea. Others, mostly older patrons, worry people will become irresponsible and stop returning books. (Nobody seems to anticipate personally becoming the problem.)

Phoenix is the county seat of Maricopa County, and the county library system, which went fine-free in May, reports no problems with book hoarders yet. Other libraries generally report that removing fines actually increases circulation. Their position: People recognize the value of a library, are responsible, and understand they are borrowing.

Phoenix Public Library spokeswoman Lee Franklin says fines disproportionately affect low-income households and those without books. She has seen parents who bring children to the library to read but tell them, “We can’t take that home.” She hopes removing a potential financial barrier will make books more accessible.

Yolanda J., who works at a Phoenix branch in a low-income area, agrees: Patrons approach her desk to ask what fines they owe. Often when they hear their balance, they turn around and leave. But patron Doyle Magouirk, who wears a gray beard, has a different perspective: When he goes overdue, he keeps the book until he accrues a large fine. When he gets his monthly paycheck, he pays his fines: “That’s how I donate to the library.” Right now he owes $11.50 and intends to pay before the fine is forgiven.

Carol Romanchuk is happy to see fines disappear because she’s always late, and the money doesn’t directly benefit the library: “I used to think it went toward new books, but then I learned it just went to the general fund, so what’s the point?”

Romanchuk is right. Phoenix Public Library currently collects about $200,000 a year for overdue books, money that goes into the city’s general fund. The Maricopa County library system, funded by property taxes, already has a program to help municipal libraries. When Phoenix joins the fine-free movement, the county will supply the city’s libraries an additional $170,000. So, since money in the city general fund may not return to the library system, the new policy might help it financially.

Still, the next time politicians propose raising taxes to help libraries, voters will know they’ve already given up one revenue source.

—Victoria Johnson is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Thu, 10/17/2019 06:21 am

    It is great to see libraries looking for creative ways to encourage reading of books. Especially in our social media, computer game, reading illiteracy age. Total absolution (no fines and forgiveness of all fines) will not work. We are all human and need some incentive to do the "right" thing. Of course many library patrons will not need the incentive. Nevertheless extending due dates, waiting some length of time such as the 50 days as noted before payments are due is a great idea. 

    I've noticed my local county library now allows 5 renewals on their 21 day borrowing time limit. So if you use their app or go online for timely renewals you can have a book for about 4 months (126 total days --- initial + 5 renewals). There are limits on late fees but if you do not return a book you pay. Not sure about getting around that one. 

  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 10/17/2019 02:03 pm

    Not sure…?  If you do not return a book it is called THEFT!  We should never encourage thievery.  If none of the books were ever returned, there would be none for anyone else to borrow.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Thu, 10/17/2019 09:31 am

    Since libraries are funded primarily out of property taxes, why wouldn't they want to ditch the hard part of collecting late fees and just keep raking in the cash from property taxes? Ratcheting up the property tax collection is much easier.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Thu, 10/17/2019 02:55 pm

    Really, the fines are miniscule compared to the benefit the public library provides to all patrons. I consider libraries to be THE best use of local taxes. The biggest fine I incurred was $5.00, because I forgot a video was due back. The checkout time is much shorter, and it's $1 a day for being overdue. I paid it happily. 

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Thu, 10/17/2019 03:43 pm

    Libraries are wonderful, with the exception of drag queen story hours, but that's another topic. About paying fines, I'm sure I'm old school on this, but I believe it's a privilege to check out materials, especially 20-30 books at a time. Shouldn't everyone accept the responsibility that goes along with it?

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 10/17/2019 10:59 pm

    I am blessed to live near two great library systems--each in a different county. One has no library fines, and the other does. I take equally good care of all borrowed materials from each system. I live in the county that charges no overdue fees, and the designated library property tax is hefty! I just have to say, that having the overdue fees in the one library waived simplifies my life (less to keep track of) and gives me a simple light-hearted joy in borrowing and reading. I vote for no fees.

    Near my home are also several of the neighborhood "free library" boxes in people's yards that resemble mail boxes or little bird houses. I use a few of those as well. They are never empty, even though they are free, and I personally put more in than I take out (including lightly used back issues of World magazine). My son is training my five year old granddaughter that she may only borrow small numbers of these books at one time and she must return before she takes more.

    It's the little pleasures that help alleviate the stressful lives we live. Not keeping track of library due dates and fines is definitely a stress-reducing pleasure point in the middle of our stressful modern life.