America’s largest public library ditches late fees

With the realization that overdue charges disproportionately affect access for low-income readers, libraries are reconsidering the value of fees.

America’s largest public library ditches late fees
Image source: Kunal Mehta/Shutterstock
  • The Chicago Public Library found that a third of their economically disadvantaged members had been denied borrowing privileges due to overdue books.
  • Overdue fines account for a tiny fraction of library funding, so the ramifications of ending them are more social than financial.
  • Though 92% of U.S. libraries still charge late fees, the number is shrinking.

Whether we're out to quench a thirst for information or lose ourselves in story, checking out a book from a public library may start the first tick of a worrisome clock. It's the time interval in which the book has to be read and returned before the imposition of a rapidly accumulating late-return fee begins. Though the fees are generally fairly small, the threat of them does introduce a measure of pressure that can be just enough to make some — especially those stretching each dollar — decide not to bother in the first place. This is especially true for people who would also have to lay out money to get themselves to the library in the first place.

Late fees conflict with the reason we have public libraries as stated at the opening of the first public library in the U.S.:

"Above all…the first regard should be shown…to the wants of those, who can, in no other way supply themselves with the interesting and healthy reading necessary for their farther education."

With wealth inequality continuing to accelerate in the U.S., more and more libraries around the country are reconsidering the negative effect of late fees. In October, the largest public library in the U.S., the Chicago Public Library, announced they were doing away with them. (92% of U.S. libraries still have late fees.)

The purpose and history of public libraries

The Boston Public Library

Image source: Mark Zhu/Shutterstock

"Of all the human arts, that of writing, as it was one of the earliest invented, is also one of the most important. Perhaps it would be safe to pronounce it, without exception, the most useful and important. It is the great medium of communication between mind and mind, as respects different individuals, countries, and periods of time. We know from history that only those portions of the human family have made any considerable and permanent progress in civilization, which have possessed and used this great instrument of improvement." — First trustees report, Boston Public Library, 1854.

The first public library in the U.S. was the Boston Public library, and the quote immediately above laying out its purpose — as well as the quote in the previous section — were written in its report to library trustees as the library opened its doors to the general population in 1854.

Prior to this, libraries were mostly personal book collections, at best available only to an owner's family, friends, and associates.

Benjamin Franklin owned over 4,000 books, and in 1731 created the first subscription library, or "social library," as a means of exchanging books within Philadelphia's literary society. In 1762, William Rind in Annapolis, Maryland, opened the first circulation library, an innovation that saw print shops and bookstores renting out books. School libraries provided reading materials to their students.

In 1833, the first organization we might recognize as a public library was started in Peterborough, New Hampshire, as the result of an unexpected windfall. New Hampshire had raised tax money for a state college that never made it off the ground and had to find something education-related to do with the money — they disbursed it to towns around the state. Peterborough used its share for a library for its citizens. It was a well-received idea, and in 1849, the state became the first to enact a law empowering municipalities to raise tax money for libraries.

Just five years later the first truly public library opened in Boston.

Chicago Public Library’s announcement

Mural on Chicago's South Side

Image source: Terence Faircloth/Flickr

Chicago Public Library Commissioner Andrea Telli told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I think our staff members are going to be practically jumping over their circulation desks to tell people that fines have been eliminated."

They'll also want to get word out to the 343,208 former patrons who've lost their library privileges to overdue fines. Data recently collected by the library reveals that one in three cardholders in the city's low-income South District is among that number. One in five of those is under 14, children who would benefit from access to the library's books. In more affluent areas, by contrast, just one in six cardholders has been penalized.

Eliminating the fines aims to return the library system to those most in need of it. Telli said, "We're removing one of the most important barriers."

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who supports the change, said in a statement, "Like too many Chicagoans, I know what it is like to grow up in financially challenging circumstances and understand what it is like to be just one bill or one mistake away from crushing debt."

Chicago is not alone in finding late fees disproportionately affecting its less-monied cardholders. In San Francisco, whose own San Francisco Public Library got rid of late fees last month, 5% of members could no longer borrow, with the majority of them living in low-income communities, African-American communities, and areas with fewer college graduates. Each of those who'd lost library privileges, on average, owed about $24 in late fees.

Curtis Rogers of the Urban Libraries Council told CityLab's Linda Poon, "Overdue fines are not distinguishing between people who are responsible and who are not. They're distinguishing between people who can and cannot use money to overcome a common oversight."

Why bother charging late fees anyway?

Image source: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

Libraries cost money. Books must be purchased, facilities paid for, and staff compensated. Nonetheless, late fees constitute just a tiny fraction of a library's budget. As a big library system, the Chicago Public Library collects nearly a million dollars each year through fines, but that represents less than 1% of their annual budget. Rogers says the impact of fees' elimination has proven negligible for other libraries, and may even save them money since personnel and time no longer need to be allocated to collecting them.

Some consider overdue fees a form of discipline that can reduce the number of books lost to people who never return them, though a 1983 study found that this isn't so over time. And, in any event, says Dawn Wacekof of La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin, "I don't think it's our task, or that it's mission-centric, any more than teaching people manners is. Our role is to provide access to information."

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