Five years ago the Salt Lake City Public Library (The City Library) announced that it was doing away with late fees for overdue items. No more scrounging for loose change to pay for a book returned a day late; no more scrambling to find the picture books your child has scattered throughout the house, and no more avoiding the library altogether because you can’t afford your accumulated fines. Existing late fees were cleared from users’ accounts, and an auto-renewal feature was added to all borrowed items. The change made an immediate impact on Library users, and five years later, it’s proven to be a clear success.
“Getting rid of fines has really changed the way we use the Library,” said Pam, a patron at the Main Library picking up books with her young daughter. She said that their frequent visits wouldn’t have been possible in the era of late fees. “I’m a single mom and I simply couldn’t afford to come to the Library if there were still late fees. But this has taken so much stress off of me. I’m not afraid to take books out anymore. Coming to the City Library is such a pleasure.”
While some worried about the impact to the City Library’s budget, the truth is, fines made up only 0.3% of the total budget. The money collected from overdue items has been easily offset by the addition of a Passport Office at the Main Library. Today, The City Library is still the largest library system in Utah without late fees.
In 2017, several small library systems around the United States had already eliminated late fees, but The City Library announcement certainly raised a few eyebrows. After all, late fees are as synonymous with libraries as card catalogs. “So what’s keeping people from just not returning anything at all?” posted one commenter on a local message board. Based on the evidence The City Library has gathered over the past five years, late fees don’t necessarily encourage users to return books they borrow, but they do discourage patrons from borrowing to begin with. Fines also disproportionately affect low income communities. The number of unreturned items has remained unchanged, while borrowing rose by 14% in the year following the elimination of fines. In 2017, almost 60,000 Library cardholders were blocked from using the Library because of unpaid fines and lost items. That number is down to fewer than 10,000 today.
Deborah Ehrman, Interim Executive Director of The City Library, notes, “Even small fines of 20 cents a day can prevent folks from checking out items from the Library, essentially defeating a library’s purpose. After all, etched into the stone at the historic Chapman Branch are the words: Free Public Library. We look to these principles and our mission to continue to drive our work forward and allow all in our beloved Salt Lake community easy access to knowledge and information.”
Following The Salt Lake City Public Library’s move to eliminate fines, Baltimore, Nashville, San Diego, LA County, and New York Public Libraries are among the many that have followed suit.