Some Libraries Are Shelving Library Fines

Overdue books should never cause financial hardship.

Photo credit: Horia Varlan, CC BY 2.0.

Right now, I owe the Seattle Public Library $1.75 in overdue fees. It’s not that I can’t remember to turn my books in on time, it’s that going to the library takes at least an hour round-trip. I either need to block off an evening to go, or drop off my books the next time I’m in the neighborhood.

I don’t mind paying the occasional dollar or so in fees, but—as Slate notes—some families don’t have the same privilege:

Go Ahead and Return That Book Late-Libraries Are Doing Away With the Overdue Fine

Library fines in most places remain quaintly low, sometimes just 10 cents per day. But one user’s nominal is another’s exorbitant. If a child checks out 10 picture books, the kind of haul librarians love to encourage, and then his mother’s work schedule prevents her from returning them for a week past the due date, that’s $7. For middle-class patrons, that may feel like a slap on the wrist, or even a feel-good donation. For low-income users, however, it can be a prohibitively expensive penalty. With unpredictable costs hovering over each checkout, too many families decide it’s safer not to use the library at all. As one California mother told the New York Times last spring, “I try to explain to [my daughter], ‘Don’t take books out. It’s so expensive.’ ”

Because of this, libraries are starting to eliminate overdue book fees. Which I think is great. As Slate explains, cutting fees comes at a nominal cost to the library and actually increases circulation, as people are more likely to return their books (and check out more) if they aren’t afraid of having to pay a fine.

There is always the risk that someone will decide to never return a book—and believe me, I have returned several library books with great regret, and have more than once decided to pay the fine just so I could read the book for a few days longer—but some no-fee libraries are mitigating this by suspending borrowing privileges for people with overdue books.

And if someone’s going to steal a book from the library, the way we heard rumors in college that you could take a necessary research book off the shelf, walk through the exit turnstile without checking it out—sure, it’ll beep, but just keep walking—and keep it for the entire semester, well… thieves will always be thieves, and library fines (or lack thereof) won’t stop them.

What do you think? Is it time to turn in the library fine and check out a new way of making books (and movies, games, and other resources) accessible to everyone?

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