CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Chicago Public Library saw a 40% increase in returns over a three-year period after doing away with late fines. The Chicago Public Library saw a 240% increase in returns over a three-week period after going fine-free. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
Starting July 1, Chapel Hill Public Library no longer charges overdue fines on late materials in order to build equitable library access, according to a press release by Chapel Hill Town Council.
The change was adopted by the Town Council in the past week as part of the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget.
Under the new policy, users will receive a series of reminders to return the materials before receiving a bill for replacement costs and losing their ability to check out other items. This ability will be restored once the items are returned or paid for.
Jessica Anderson, council liaison to the library advisory board, said in the press release that the late fines have a disproportionate impact on “low-income and traditionally marginalized populations.”
In an interview, Anderson also said eliminating the late fines increases access to resources for communities across different income levels.
“Library fees and fines are not the only area where we are making efforts to ensure that our residents don’t get caught in negative cycles where higher-resourced residents can easily just pay their way out and lower-resourced residents can’t,” she said.
Other considerations include evaluating data on revenue and user experience, said Chapel Hill Public Library Director Susan Brown.
“We have been looking at our revenue numbers from fines for a couple of years, and they've been trending down in general,” she said. “That also means that they make up less and less of a percentage of the overall library and Town budget."
She said that the revenue from late fines is less than one percent of the library’s operating budget.
In addition, fine-free models bring back users and materials, Anderson said.
“Almost all of the libraries indicated that soon after adopting a fine-free model, both lapsed users and long-lost materials came back in great numbers, and that well after the model was in place, items were returned in a timely fashion,” she said.
However, questions on the effectiveness of this approach came up during previous council discussions.
At a February meeting, council member Hongbin Gu suggested only expanding fine-free borrowing to people who need it. Although she said she understood how universal fine forgiveness expands accessibility, she expressed concerns that it may also foster irresponsibility.
“For me, if I’m being irresponsible not returning library books, I want to be fined,” Gu said in the meeting. “I should be fined, I think.”
Anderson said that the new policy does not allow for keeping overdue materials, as users’ accounts are put on hold until materials are returned.
She added that evidence suggests that punitive rules don’t encourage responsibility.
“The research and best practices just don’t show evidence that penalties create better habits or responsibility, they just mean that wealthier folks can afford to make those mistakes that we all make,” she said.
Chicago Public Library’s decision to eliminate library fines triggered a 240% increase in book returns over a three-week period right after the library went fine free in 2019, said Paul Negron, communications manager for Urban Libraries Council, a research institute and network of public library systems.
According to an interactive map launched by ULC, many library systems across North America have gone fine-free.
In an email, Gu said she now supports the fine-free model that can open service access to minority and marginalized communities which experience a disparity in library usage.
“With the pandemic, we are in a stressful and unpredictable time for a lot of people,” she said. “Library is an essential resource when schools, museums, and arts centers are closed.”
Negron said it is important to remove the barriers to library services amid the pandemic.
“All of these services are really helping folks transition into this new way of life,” he said. “If there's a small barrier like overdue fine that is blocking folks from even engaging, then it's just not worth it.”
As a result of the policy change, Anderson said she expects the number of users and returning materials to grow.
“What I hope we see is that anyone who had stopped using the library due to fines and fees returns and that we don’t lose anyone again due to an overdue or lost book,” she said.
The change is in line with the library’s mission to support the community, Brown said.
“Public libraries aren't really a book business; we're a people business,” she said. “So, the more people that we can help, the better job that we can do.”
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