Ending late fees restores the principle of ‘public’ libraries

Ending late fees restores the principle of ‘public’ libraries
photo of library with turned on lights

For more than 100 years, public library systems throughout the U.S. have charged late fees for books and other materials returned past their due dates. This policy primarily impacts the disenfranchised, low-income communities that the modern public library system is intended to serve in the first place—and most often affects people of color, according to an article published by the Urban Libraries Council. The article, written by Katherine Carter and Denise Belser of the National League of Cities, notes:

"Research shows that communities of color are more likely to be impacted by unpaid library fees and are grappling with a higher percentage of suspended library cards."

In response to the inequalities created by the late fee policy, a Fine Free movement has been gaining traction, and libraries across the U.S. have been eliminating the late fee policy over the last few years, as detailed by Deborah Fallows in the Atlantic in 2020.

Now, the largest public library system in the country has followed suit. As of October 5, all three public library systems in New York City—Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library and Queens Public Library—eliminated "late fines on books and other circulating materials." The New York libraries' decision comes in the wake of other major cities that have gone fine-free, including San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Seattle and Dallas. "New York City's [library] systems represent the largest municipality to eliminate fines," according to a press release by the Brooklyn Public Library.

Under the new system, a replacement fee will still apply to lost items. According to the press release, an item will be considered "lost after being overdue for about one month. If materials are returned, however, no fees will apply." Under the former system, any library-goer with more than $15 in late fines would have their library card blocked. This is no longer the case.

As of October 5 (the date of the NYC libraries' joint announcement), the library systems estimated 400,000 New Yorkers had blocked library cards—and more than half of those with blocked cards live in high-need communities, according to statistics gathered by the libraries and shared in the press release.

Nick Higgins, the chief librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library system, says the decision to end late fines was a long time coming. He says the conversation was brewing for several years before the three large and complex library systems in New York City were able to come together in unison around the decision.

"The conversation around [being a] fine-free [city] has been bubbling up for a long time, always couched in this idea of equity and access for people," Higgins says. "It just took a little while to build the case. It's a really complex system [and] one library system couldn't really go out on their own. We wanted it to be a fine-free city for people who were accessing libraries across the five boroughs."

The revenue brought in by late fees is not insignificant. The Brooklyn Public Library alone has typically accrued anywhere between $600,000 and $800,000 annually in late fees, Higgins says.

"It's a form of revenue that a lot of public libraries have depended on since their beginnings, but it isn't a great [form of revenue]," he says. "That's why we changed it. We shouldn't be getting revenue from folks who need our resources just by virtue of their lives being complicated or difficult… we shouldn't be deriving revenue from them. But there is a tangible loss, so it has to be made up somewhere."

Higgins says that for the Brooklyn Public Library, the challenge now is to adjust fundraising efforts so that it is focused on maintaining or expanding their collections of books and other materials.

"The revenue that we get from late fines was going right back into supporting the collections, so if our collection budget is, say, $10 million a year, and we are losing $600,00 to $800,000 of that because of canceling fines, we're going to take a hit. Our eyes are wide open on this… but we'll just get creative in figuring out ways to generate some fundraising around it to make up for that loss."

Higgins notes that in 2020, during the onset of the ongoing pandemic, the library systems in New York already temporarily canceled late fines, "because obviously it was just the right thing to do. People were losing their homes and dealing with all sorts of things, and the library fines should be the last thing on their minds."

He says in some way the emergency of the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement—and all that rose to the surface throughout 2020 in society—brought to light underlying and preexisting realities and challenges many library-goers (and people in general) have long faced.

"I think we came to the decision to eliminate late fines possibly faster because of [the pandemic and the events of 2020], although we did have people who have been building the case for a few years now," Higgins says. "Perhaps the pandemic—and more and more people waking up to the systemic racism that has been around for a long time (and that a lot of people already knew about and lived with, but [which] many people just woke up to)—maybe that all accelerated the process for us going fine-free, and helped some of the stakeholders understand that the equity argument for going fine-free was a good one."

He notes that the libraries were able to gather statistics about who was most impacted by late fines, based on addresses collected with library registration information. Based on the collection of this data, libraries were able to calculate that most of the people who were shouldering late fines throughout New York City, lived in neighborhoods that have historically had double-digit unemployment rates, and also were people who belonged to communities where primarily people of color live.

These statistics based on address information reveal some stark inequities. They show that branches of the New York Public Library in high-needs communities with a median household income below $50,000 "accounted for six times the number of blocked patrons as others," said the press release from the Brooklyn Public Library.

The press release further noted that "[t]he 10 branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards are all in high needs communities, and each have one in five cardholders blocked. In the Queens Public Library system, the communities with the highest number of blocked cards—Corona, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, and Elmhurst—all have median incomes well below the borough average."

Similar statistics were reported for the Brooklyn Public Library, where library branches "with the highest percentage of blocked cards [were] in neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of households live below the poverty level."

Across the board, the trend was exaggerated for youth. Children and teens 17 and under made up 30 percent of blocked library accounts in Brooklyn, and in Queens, 65 percent of blocked accounts belonged to kids of the same age group.

A citywide assessment of blocked cards completed in 2017 found that 80 percent of blocked youth cards were located in low-income communities, as reported in the press release.

"I'm hopeful that us going fine-free fundamentally changes our relationships with the public, in a way that I hope signals that we're here for everyone, and that people don't have to be afraid to come into the library and belong to the library community because of that 50 cent charge on the Stephen King book that they took out when they were in fourth grade," Higgins says.

Higgins says going fine-free is aligned with the kinds of institutions libraries set out to be in the first place.

"We talk about ourselves as the most democratic, accessible, inclusive institutions in the city or anywhere, and we pride ourselves on being an anchor of community problem-solving, community engagement, places where people can come in from all different backgrounds and experiences and build relationships, and just access all of these shared resources for free," he says. "Having a penalty system folded into that experience is antithetical to our values and our principles—for both access and inclusion—and being free and accessible to everyone in our communities."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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