Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Library Fines and Forgiveness

Puppet with Money
Puppet with Money photo courtesy of Pixaby

Recently the discussion list for the Association of Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) featured a lively debate on the topic of public libraries charging overdue fines. There are certainly strong cases to be made for charging as well as not charging, so I’m not going to choose a side. However, the discussion got me thinking about “amnesties” or fine forgiveness campaigns.

In 2012 the Chicago Public Library offered its “Once in a Blue Moon” library fine amnesty program; the first time in over 20 years that it offered such an initiative. During this three-week program, late fines were waived on all library materials, no matter how long overdue.  If an item had been lost, patrons were responsible for paying only the replacement cost.  Most items returned were three to five years overdue but staff was surprised by the number of items from the 1970s and 1980s. The oldest book returned was a limited-edition copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that was due in 1934. Chicago Public Library estimated that over $2 million in library materials were returned as a result of this program.

Many libraries throughout Wisconsin run successful “food for fines” drives. During these drives, non-perishable food items are accepted and fines reduced accordingly. Each fall the Neenah and Menasha public libraries hold a combined drive benefiting two local food pantries. $1.00 worth of non-perishable food items results in $2.00 of overdue charges being waived. No damaged or expired items are accepted and food items are only applied toward fines – no lost or damaged book charges or other fees.

During the week leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, the Deerfield Public Library ran a “Fine Forgiveness Lottery.” The library put a "treasure chest" at the circulation desk filled with slips of paper listing various fine amounts. Patrons were encouraged to draw a slip out of the treasure chest and then have their overdue charges reduced accordingly.

Libraries can benefit in numerous ways from holding amnesties and other fine forgiveness initiatives. They’re an effective way to encourage the return of long-overdue library materials. They reach out to patrons who may be prohibited from using the library due to excessive fines. And they position the library as a friendly, fun, and responsive community partner.

Post written by:
Denise Anton Wright, Public Library Development