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Op-ed: Eliminating late fines simply makes sense

People walk through the atrium of the Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.
People walk through the atrium of the Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Salt Lake City Library’s commitment to the values of free and open access guided the Library Board when it voted on May 22 to eliminate late fines on all materials. In doing so, the library joined systems across the country in a move to break down one of the most persistent and misunderstood barriers to public library access.

Simply put, late fines don’t work as advertised. For decades it has been a firmly held belief for both librarians and patrons that late fines are necessary to ensure the return of checked-out materials. However, there is no evidence that this is true, and an increasing body of evidence generated by libraries that have eliminated fines shows that fines have little to no impact on the timely return of materials.

Late fines are also expensive to collect. The Vernon Area (Illinois) Public Library District reports that “the cost of staff time to handle overdue fines and of processing them amounts to more than what they’re earning back from patrons.” The Colorado State Library conducted a comprehensive study on the impact of fines on library usage and concluded that “administrative costs … and staff time associated with collecting funds from patrons often equals or exceeds the revenue earned from library fines and fees.”

The Salt Lake City Library expects to forgo approximately $75,000 in revenue from eliminating late fines, or roughly a third of a percent of our annual budget. Checkouts of our electronic resources (e-books, e-magazines, e-music, etc.) are on the rise as more community members choose to access information online, and digital items accrue no late fines.

When the San Rafael (California) Public Library experimented with the elimination of fines for children’s materials in 2014–2015, it saw a 39 percent increase in youth card registrations. Notably, it saw a 126 percent increase in registrations at its Pickleweed Branch, which serves its most economically disadvantaged neighborhood.

In short, fines serve no practical purpose but do effectively block taxpaying families from accessing the services of their library. Removing this barrier gets more materials into the hands of our patrons. That is, after all, what library collections are for — library materials should be in homes across Salt Lake City, not sitting on our libraries’ shelves.

Removing late fines doesn’t remove our patrons’ responsibility for returning materials, as patrons will still be charged for items that aren’t returned. Email and text have made it easier, faster and less expensive to remind patrons when their materials are due back and when they’ve passed the due date, and other libraries that have eliminated late fines have seen these reminders, along with lost materials charges, work as effectively as late fines to ensure the responsible return of materials.

We want every encounter with library staff to be friendly, helpful and inspiring, not regulatory or punitive. With less staff time focused on enforcing fines, we can spend more time doing the positive work of the modern public library: helping preschoolers develop the early literacy skills they need to be successful in school; inspiring curiosity in learners of all ages; fostering a healthy community that can bridge differences and tackle tough issues together; closing the access divide for individuals in our increasingly digital world; and enhancing the quality of life for everyone in Salt Lake City.

Patrick Losinski, the CEO of Columbus Metropolitan Library, said, “We’ve had 150 years to try to teach customers timeliness or responsibility, and I don’t know that that’s our greatest success story.” We believe our greatest successes have been finding ways to remove unnecessary barriers to access of information and to one another, and we see the decision to remove late fines as one of the big, bold steps that will bring us closer to realizing that success for everyone in our community.

Peter Bromberg is executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. Mimi Charles is president of the library’s board of directors.