A year without library fines

Suzanne Goldsmith
Lauren Fowler enjoys the reading room at the Columbus Metropolitan Library's Main Branch.

It’s been a year since the Columbus Metropolitan Library eliminated fines for overdue books. While the new, less-punitive policy did not send borrowers stampeding to the stacks (the number of books and other physical items checked out system-wide actually saw a slight decrease in 2017, corresponding in part to an increase in digital downloads), library officials think this gentler, kinder approach may have made their 23 locations a little more inviting, especially for children.

“We’re seeing more young children during Reading Buddies, more students for Homework Help and more customers seeking access to technology,” wrote library spokesman Ben Zenitsky in an email. The library’s primary strategy, he wrote, is to “impact young minds”—especially by helping students prepare to pass the third grade reading proficiency test. To that end, the library eliminated fines for children back in 2014, when they began offering Kids Cards: cards that students can sign up for on their own and that allow them to borrow and hang onto up to five “age-appropriate” items, fine-free.

CML is not alone in eliminating overdue fines; locally, Delaware County District Library has not fined delinquent borrowers since 1986 (the library has fines for AV materials returned late) and Worthington Libraries dumped their fines in October 2016. Nationally, however, 98 percent of large libraries (serving populations greater than 100,000) and 88 percent of smaller libraries were still charging overdue fines when Library Journal commissioned a survey in January 2017.

“I’d like to think we’re at the forefront of national trends,” says Zenitsky.

CML never relied on revenue from fines to fund operations, notes Zenitsky. In 2016, fines and fees accounted for $548,656, less than one percent of the library’s $66 million budget. That fines and fees figure was reduced by nearly half in 2017, to $280,522, mostly from lost or damaged items and old fines.

Are people clinging to their books longer without the threat of overdue fees? Or has the elimination of fines generated a sense of grateful responsibility in the hearts of formerly laggard borrowers? No answer was available; Zenitsky told Columbus Monthly that the library does not keep data on how long borrowers keep their materials. Other librarians told Library Journal that eliminating fines did not change borrower behavior, but it did improve community relations. “The interaction at the circulation desk is much less fraught,” Lisa Richland, director of Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, NY, told the Journal.

In case you were wondering, you can’t keep those overdue books and DVDs forever. If an item is 21 days late, your card will be blocked—although you can still access eBooks and reserve rooms at library facilities. After 35 days, the library considers the item lost and you’ll be billed for replacement costs. The library will refer the matter to a materials recovery agency if you fail to pay. Bring the book or DVD back, though, and all is forgiven.