Why We Went Fine Free

Do you want to know the first thing someone tells me when they learn I’m a librarian? They tell me how much money they owe the library in fines. They tell me they are late returning a book. Always. It’s a universal response anywhere I go. It’s a response based in shame, and it’s an unnecessary way for people to feel about their relationship to their library. We’ve decided it’s time to change how we do business for this reason and many more I’ll explain below.

Lawrence Public Library eliminated late fees on overdue books on January 1, 2020. In doing so, we have joined an expanding roster of other libraries in cities across the country. San Diego. Denver. Baltimore. Chicago. Kansas City. St. Louis. The list goes on and continues to grow each month. 

Here’s the thing. I used to believe in late fees. I believed a small monetary penalty incentivized the return of materials and helped libraries get our books back more quickly and along to the next customer. I saw it as our fiscal responsibility and good tax stewardship. I saw late fees as that little negative reinforcement that made us all more responsible. I know many people that are “proud to pay their fines,” and I appreciate their love of our library.

I also believed that if you wanted to keep a book a little longer, you could just pay the late fees for the ‘extended use.’ I didn’t stop to think that not everyone can pay for that privilege of paying for ‘extended use.’ I believed in these things so much, I was blind to the negative effects late fees were having on so many in our community. Thankfully, we’ve begun to look at late fees differently here at LPL, and it will improve our ability to ensure that we are providing more resources to more people in our community.

Last winter, the American Library Association passed a resolution declaring “monetary library fines a form of social inequity.” When our library conducted a Community Information Needs Assessment a few years back, we heard the same thing. Late fees were creating a considerable barrier for people we surveyed who were living under the poverty line. That is a major problem we knew we needed to correct if we were truly seeking to meet our mission to “imagine more” for our entire community.

Use fees are not an equitable approach to service. As we looked more closely, we learned that the research finds no evidence that late fees encourage the return of library materials. In fact, libraries without late fees do a better job getting back long overdue books than libraries that charge late fees. We felt compelled to act.

We believe true equity of service should sit at the core of our mission as a public library. We knew we needed to find a way to make going “fine free” a reality in Lawrence. Our primary impediment was how to make up lost revenue and not affect library service. When the budget numbers came in last summer for expected revenues for the library for 2020, we were able to create a budget that allowed us to rely less on revenue from late fees. We believe we have a way forward that reduces barriers to access while still remaining responsible stewards of tax dollars.

Let me be clear that going fine free does not mean we aren’t holding people responsible for bringing books back. You still gotta bring the books back! If you don’t bring a book back, we will consider it lost and you’ll need to pay for it (or just please return it!). We simply are no longer charging a daily fee when an item isn’t returned on its due date.

We greet this new decade dedicated to serving everyone in our community the best we possibly can. I am thrilled about living in our new fine free world. I look forward to welcoming back to the library all the people that had given up on us because they owed us money because they returned some books late. Please stop in and see us and remember that we are your public library.

-Brad Allen is the Director of Lawrence Public Library.