When people ponder borrowing items from their local public libraries the deep-seated fear of late return fees is often high on the list of things that come to mind.
“Everybody, when they think about libraries, they think about books first, sometimes they maybe then think about their librarian that they grew up with, and then they think about fines — and that’s the negative relationship they have with the library,” said Scott Jarzombek, executive director for the Albany Public Library.
The nagging collective fear of what happens when an item isn’t returned to a public library on time has manifested itself in pop culture time and again. Horror author Stephen King once wrote a novella titled “The Library Policeman” in which the story’s protagonist Sam Peebles is tasked with giving a speech in front of his local Rotary Club. Peebles decides to borrow some books on speechwriting from his local library, and he receives an ominous warning from librarian Ardelia Lortz who says to return the books on time, or “I’ll have to send the Library Policeman after you.”
A 1991 episode of Seinfeld titled “The Library” centered around comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s anxiety after discovering he had accumulated late fees going back to 1971 when he failed to return “The Tropic of Cancer.” Seinfeld’s case is turned over to a “library investigations officer” Lt. Bookman, played memorably by character actor Philip Baker Hall. In the episode’s climactic scene Bookman lets Seinfeld know what he thinks about people who don’t return items to the library on time.
“What’s my problem, punks like you, that’s my problem. And you better not screw up again Seinfeld, because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a Pit Bull on a Poodle,” he said.
In real life, however, more and more public libraries are abandoning the age-old late fee system because they find it provides little, if any, benefit to libraries and actually discourages use, and even discourages people from returning overdue items.
In May, the Johnstown Public Library announced it will join the nationwide “Fine Free” movement, discontinuing all late fees.
“This is a way of libraries acknowledging that we want people to use our services and fines penalize people from using our services. I brought it to the library board of trustees as a way of improving service at very little cost,” said Erica Wing, Johnstown library director.
Johnstown recently became a school district library, a growing trend among public libraries in New York state. As a school district library, Johnstown receives $396,000 from an annual tax levy of residents in the Greater Johnstown School District. The city of Johnstown, which used to fund that library, now only provides $2,500 annually, part of its original deal with steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie who donated the money to build the library at the turn of the 20th century.
According to Wing, while donations from the library’s foundation are an important revenue source, late fines account for only about 0.8 percent of the library’s revenues. She said her library had seen that the Albany Public Library had adopted a fine free policy in January, and decided to try it as a means of promoting use and good will in her community.
“People were not wanting to come into the library because they were afraid of fines on their cards from way back when they were young, and they didn’t want to come back as adults because of that. We didn’t want that associated with the library any longer. Taking that away, hopefully, will be a way of welcoming people back,” she said. “Fear of fines at libraries is deeply ingrained in the public’s psyche, and we’re trying to take that away and change the image of libraries, so people will know that we’re more of a community center, and not just a repository of materials.”
In 2018, Kelsey Dorado the communication and marketing manager for the New York Library Association, wrote a report distributed to New York public libraries examining the issue of “Going Fine Free.” Dorado referenced a 2016 study in Colorado that determined late fees were seen as a barrier to access and participation in library services, particularly among the poor.
“Libraries go fine free for several reasons, but the most common are, building good will with the community, reducing negative interactions at the desk, and breaking down financial barriers. The Alfred Box of Books Library in Alfred, N.Y., decided to go fine free because they recently asked for a significant tax levy from their patrons and felt a good way to give back and say thank you would be to eliminate their 10 cent per day fine,” Dorado wrote. “Along with the idea of good will, is better interactions at the desk. Nobody likes fines, staff don’t like collecting them and patrons don’t like paying them. The interaction that is about to take place is inherently negative.”
Dorado’s report sited research by the Rochester Public Library which noticed that in Rochester’s highest poverty area, a large percentage of library users had fines between $5 and $12 resulting in blocked library cards. Rochester Public Library went fine free for children and teens in 2016 and in the first year saw a 10 percent increase in library cards issued and a 9 percent increase in children and teen circulation.
Maribeth Sizemore, the assistant director for the Amsterdam Free Library, said her library’s children’s department is fine free, but she said the fiscal constraints on her library would likely factor into any future decision to expand the fine free concept. She said eliminating fines on children’s items had little affect.
“Most of the children weren’t delinquent anyway,” she said.
Barbara Madonna, the library director for the Gloversville Public Library, said her library, which recently completed a $9 million restoration project, has not decided to go fine free, but it might in the future. She said fines account for less than 1 percent of her budget, and have proven to be a barrier to use.
“I think fine free is a good idea actually. It’s been proven that fines are not a deterrent to people returning things late,” she said. “We recently had a new teen move to our area, and she can’t use most of our services because she has fines from another library, so we’re seeing it here as a barrier.”
New paradigm in practice
Madonna said the Gloversville Public Library will be watching closely to see how fine free works in Johnstown. Many larger public libraries will be watching how things go at the Albany Public Library.
Jarzombek said Albany had been taking in about $65,000 annually in fines, less than 1 percent of his seven-library system budget. He said the way fine free will work in Albany is patrons who fail to return their items on time will have their cards frozen until they bring the items back.
“We think there’s probably going to be a higher return rate because there is no fine. People care about losing borrowing privileges more than the late fees,” he said.
How quickly a patron will have their library cards deactivated will depend on several factors including how many other library members are waiting to borrow the item, and the “newness” of the item.
“New books and dvds your card gets locked down a lot quicker,” Jarzombek said.
Karen Bradley, the library director for the Schenectady County Public Library, said fines account for about $140,000 in revenue for county’s 11 library system. She said tax levy revenues at the county level are subject to the New York State Property Tax cap, which makes it hard to contemplate reducing any revenue source.
“Could there be a fine free card for children? The board has definitely explored that area. What we found was a lot of the significant fines on children’s cards were for things that adults had taken out using the child’s cards, items children wouldn’t be interested in,” she said.
Bradley said Schenectady will be watching what happens in Albany very closely to see how fine free effects library usage and return of items.
The website urbanlibraries.org has a map which attempts to keep track of all of the fine free libraries in the U.S. The site says the map is updated periodically, but is likely incomplete. So far, it lists these fine free libraries in New York state: the Albany Public Library, the Tompkins County Public Library, the Rochester Public Library, the Newfield Public Library, the Ulysses Philomathic Library, the Tomkins Cove Public Library and the Montclair Public Library.