Are Library Fines a Thing of the Past?
Libraries have been collecting fines since the late 1800s, originally using them to generate library revenue and in some extreme cases, to punish those who could not adhere to arbitrary deadlines. Studies on abolishing library fines started emerging as early as the 1970s, but these studies had little impact on library systems in the UK.
However, despite the number of libraries abolishing fines being surprisingly low, the matter of library fines is a hot topic in libraries at present. After the pandemic forced many libraries to temporarily close their doors, making it nearly impossible for patrons to return overdue items, libraries started reviewing their returns policies. This in turn triggered a global movement to remove all fines for overdue library materials.
In the same survey, Libraries Connected discovered that a third of the libraries in the UK are currently considering getting rid of library fines, which suggests that library fines could soon be a thing of the past. And in the age of a digital landscape, renewing items and extending the loan period is easier than ever. Nowadays libraries don’t need to collect fines to boost library revenue, and it seems that it’s taken a global pandemic for libraries to question whether fines are counter-productive.
Are you Taking Part in the National Library Amnesty?
One-way libraries have been encouraging lenders to return overdue library materials is through library amnesty initiatives, urging patrons to check their bookcases, and look behind the sofa and under their beds for any overdue library materials. The main drive behind book amnesties is to get missing library books back on the shelves.
One library in East Sussex is currently holding a book amnesty where all late fees will be waived for seven weeks. Councillor in East Sussex, Claire Dowling said: “Every year many titles fail to make it back to us, and if books aren’t returned other people miss out.” On average almost 5,000 books a year fail to make it back on the shelves in the county, whether that’s because patrons forget to return the books by a certain date, or because they get lost is unclear. Yet this amnesty initiative allows patrons to return forgotten library books without the library fine hanging over them.”
And it’s not just Sussex libraries that are making the most of an amnesty initiative. Libraries in Peterborough also issued an amnesty period to recover as many as 22,000 missing books. The amnesty spreads across ten libraries in the area, all of which will not fine anybody for returning overdue books and will wipe all debts on accounts in a bid to encourage patrons to continue using the services. Library Services Manager Firzana Shaheen explained that during the current financial climate, the library service doesn’t want overdue fines ‘standing in the way of people visiting the library and experiencing all that it has to offer’.
Meanwhile, the Guardian contacted 148 library authorities in England and Wales about library fines, charged every day for either a book or other item issued by the library. Of the 79 libraries that responded, half are no longer charging library fines for overdue adult library books and materials to help ease financial pressures for those on lower incomes.
For many libraries, it seems the decision to go fine-free is largely led by wanting to ease financial pressures for its patrons and encourage them to use the library’s facilities and borrow material without worrying about fines that may impact their decision to visit the library. But if the digital age is slowly making library fines a thing of the past, then what incentive is there for patrons to return library materials on time?
Nick Pool, CEO of Charted Institute of Library Professionals (CILIP) believes that there shouldn’t have to be a monetary incentive that commits patrons to return borrowed items. He said “Libraries are unique public spaces providing free access to reading and learning. They are there for everyone, and anything that removes barriers to joining and using the library is very welcome.”
Better Late Than Never?
Library fines are becoming less serious debts to be paid off, and more comedic light-hearted news stories. A 76-year-old pensioner in Dudley recently returned a library book that was 58 years overdue, racking up a whopping £46,000 in library fees. David Hickman was just 17 when he checked out ‘The Law of Motorists’ in 1964 to study up on his road etiquette after being involved in a car accident. Since then, Hickman had moved from Dudley to Battersea in South London and took the book with him.
Librarians in Dudley didn’t charge David Hickman for returning the book and were instead relieved to have the title back on its shelves. The library now plans to donate it to the Black County Museum.
Back in 2019, when D-Tech first visited the matter of library fines, a woman was facing a potential prison sentence for failing to return a library book in time. A bit extreme don’t you think? In 2023 unless patrons damage library materials, they can forget about serving time behind bars.
But what’s next for library fines, do you agree with the global movement of abolishing library fines? Or do you think they serve a greater purpose than just encouraging patrons to return materials on time?