On January 2, 2018, Heights Libraries joined a growing number of public libraries that have eliminated overdue fines for most late materials. Despite the fact that the benefits have been supported by research, the elimination of fines still strikes many as an almost sacrilegious act. Libraries and fines, in some people’s minds, go together like peanut butter and jelly.
“Some customers were very opposed to it, to say the least,” said Heights Libraries Director Nancy Levin. “I heard arguments ranging from the effectiveness of fines for teaching children responsibility, to the belief that people wouldn’t return their items anymore because the fear of fines is what keeps them honest. But what we have found is just the opposite.”
A little over a year after it was implemented, the elimination of overdue fines for Heights Libraries materials has resulted in more returned items, which has saved the Library significant money—more returned items means fewer items that need to be replaced. It also means more items are getting back into circulation, instead of sitting in the homes of anxious, guilt-ridden customers.
“The effectiveness of this new policy is hard to argue with,” said Circulation Manager Ty Emerson. “In 2017, when we were still charging overdue fines, $94,369 worth of material was returned to our libraries. In 2018, after fine elimination, that grew to $185,955. It doubled.”
Customers still see fines on their accounts, but those fines disappear once overdue items are returned. Along with the elimination of most fines and fees, the library has also increased the number of times most items can be renewed, from five to ten times. More renewals means more time before a fine is charged, which results in a less punitive, more generous, accessible approach to customers.
Another surprising result of the elimination of fines has been the amount of cash collected by the library’s collection agency, Unique. That number has also risen since 2017, from $22,347 to $26,366 in 2018.
While late fees are waived on books, CDs, and DVDs as long as the materials are returned, the library still charges fees for damaged or lost items, and late fees for video games and wireless hot spots still apply. Accounts with fines of $25 or over are still handed over to collections, but even then, as long as materials are returned, the customer can pay a $10 fee and be welcomed back, no questions asked.
“I think what we’re seeing are customers who might otherwise be dissuaded from bringing the materials back—because of excessive overdue fees–are able to get back into the library by only paying the $10 referral fee,” said Emerson. “And we want them back! We want people to use the library, not be scared off by punitive policies.”