The iSchool Public Libraries Initiative (IPLI) is a research group within the iSchool that focuses on public library research. I was curious about what evidence supports the widespread use of library fines. I was surprised to find that there are few studies that show they are effective at getting patrons to return items on time.

This discovery prompted an investigation into the potential benefits of eliminating fines. I interviewed 15 librarians across the United States who work at libraries that have eliminated fines in the past few years.

The most illuminating result of this research was the variety of advantages that the librarians described as a result of eliminating fines. Some of my survey questions highlighted specific benefits I observed or had found detailed in my research, but I also asked the respondents to explain the benefits of this change that they saw in their own communities. The answers were extremely varied.

I wanted to share five unique benefits the librarians identified. If you want to know more, you can see all of the accompanying research in this full report (PDF).

Benefit #1: Librarians and staff can provide better service to patrons

When patrons have too many fines, this often means patrons are no longer able to check out books or use other services provided by the library. Each one has a different maximum amount in fines allowed before patron privileges are restricted.

Denying service to patrons who had accrued too many fines is an interaction that can cause a lot of tension for librarians and staff who have to handle these transactions. These interactions can hinder the ability of librarians and staff to provide good service.

This benefit is mentioned by four of the fifteen libraries that participated in the survey. They explained that their librarians and staff are now better able to serve their patrons now that they don’t have to worry about the repercussions of issuing and collecting fines. As a result, they are more able to do their jobs well.

Benefit #2: Being fine-free is more aligned with the real mission of the library

Three libraries mentioned that imposing fines on patrons is in direct opposition to the mission of the library, which is to provide equitable access to information for all.

Due to this realization, they decided to reevaluate their policies and procedures to ensure that the services they provide are truly equitable Because fines disproportionately affect lower income patrons, many librarians find fines to be inequitable.

These librarians emphasized that reexamining policies should be done on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are not putting up inequitable barriers to access. One librarian specifically questioned whether the library’s mission was to teach people to be responsible, or if it was to provide access to information.

Benefit #3: Libraries seeing an increase in item returns

Overdue fines can cause library anxiety, which is a common feeling of fear of the library space or of people working in the library for a variety of reasons. Fines cause library anxiety because they are a form of punishment. Patrons are afraid of being reprimanded for turning in books late.

Consequently, patrons hold onto books well past their due dates because they are afraid of having to face their fines, as well as the librarian imposing the fines.

Some of the respondents to the survey noted that they have seen increases in the number of items returned since eliminating fines. This could ultimately lead to shorter hold times and fewer permanently lost items.

Benefit #4: Libraries can use their resources better

Three libraries specifically mentioned that this shift would lead to better application of library resources. One library’s use of the phrase “better use of resources” was vague. However, another library specifically mentioned that eliminating fines meant that patrons were better able to learn about and take advantage of available library resources. Without the barrier of fines, or even the threat of the barrier, patrons are better able to engage with their library.

The third library specifically mentioned that children have more access to literacy resources as a result of eliminating overdue fines. While some libraries do not restrict children’s access to books and other resources because of fines, many do. This can be particularly detrimental to children from lower income families. These families have no other means of access to books and other literacy resources.

Benefit #5: Eliminating fines can lead to a renewed appreciation for the library (or at least provide some good PR)

Eliminating fines can improve the library’s relationship to its community. This can include local businesses and civic leaders and new opportunities for outreach. Going fine free has also proven itself to garner the attention of both local and national media outlets.

Now might be the best time to make this change. Because there is currently a lot of momentum towards the fine-free movement, the library can use that momentum to help legitimize the change and use it as a marketing tool.

Renewed appreciation may also refer to the patrons’ relationship to the library. Many users may feel welcomed back to the library after an extended period of time away. Having people return to the library may lead to an increase in library usage and circulation of materials.

I hope you take the time to read the whole report. It includes research about library fines, their advantages and disadvantages, and more information that was collected in the library survey.

Many public libraries across the United States are eliminating fines for a variety of reasons. This may provide insight into their motivations. It also serves as a resource for librarians considering making the change for themselves.

Due to COVID-19, there are currently far more libraries that are temporarily waving late fines and extending due dates. This could be a test for the library to see if they could consider going fine free permanently once the pandemic is over.