Librarian: Ending Library Fines Is A Social justice Issue

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2019 - 12:02pm
Updated: Thursday, June 13, 2019 - 2:58pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Library fines have been something many of us have some experience with -coughing up a quarter here or there for an overdue book. Maricopa County recently decided to get rid of those fines from all of its libraries, following a national trend of sorts. So how important is it to keep the idea of an overdue fine in place to get patrons to return a book or movie? Is the fine too small to have much of an impact? New Jersey librarian Andy Woodworth started the website and is with me to talk about his efforts. Andy let's begin in late 2018. You read a paper from the Colorado State Library related to eliminating juvenile and children's overdue fines. How did that affect you? 

ANDY WOODWORTH: The one thing that struck me the most about this paper is that there is absolutely no research to support the fact that library fines do what we think they do, which is encourage people to return books. As someone who is an information professional I was flabbergasted. I found this to be getting in the way of our mission; which is to provide access to as many people as we possibly can so they can borrow books, use the computers, take our classes and attend our programs. And when I started doing my own research into it and finding articles in printed press as well as academic journals. There was absolutely nothing to show that fines encourage people to return books. In fact it's quite the opposite. In the mid '80s; though the city of Philadelphia tried doubling their fines to make up revenue, what they found is that circulation went down and so people were borrowing less because they were afraid of fines.

GOLDSTEIN: The fines themselves when we think about; OK if you're late a certain number of days, perhaps it's a quarter a day. The money itself seems so little... was it simply to sort of send a message to give people a reason to return, they thought. Because the money itself couldn't have added up to much right?

WOODWORTH: No, the money itself doesn't add up to much. What they're finding is that it really makes a small percentage of the budget for libraries that are either limiting fines for children or limiting fines overall. My personal theory is that it's just a holdover from the early subscription library days. My first library I worked in was established in the late 1800s and there was a nice little article that says that it cost you a nickel to get in and a nickel to borrow a book. So I think it's been something that's been held onto for a very long period of time but no one has actually questioned what it does for the library overall.

GOLDSTEIN: So what is the argument then against eliminating fines these days? Is there the assumption you have to give people a reason to return it because they're not responsible enough to return it unless there's a threat of a fine?

WOODWORTH: There's a little bit of a language difference where a fine is when if something is overdue and you return it you would pay that money for that. In an ideal... world of course we would love to eliminate as well is fees. A lot of the libraries that have moved to being fine-free have other ways of inducing people to return books. Such as making so that they can't borrow anything additional. After a set period of time they'll be billed for the book. The library will presume it's lost. I think with the social justice movement overall it's become another point to really examine how society can, I guess for lack of a better phrase, do better for people who really need the assistance of library services.

GOLDSTEIN: If it is in fact a barrier to people using the libraries and in fact the money itself wasn't really adding up to much anyway, it almost seems like this shouldn't be that big a fight. Are you surprised it still is in some communities?

WOODWORTH: As an idealist, of course I'm surprised. As a realist, of course there's going to be some pushback on it. And I can understand where people are coming from. As much as we can say oh it's just a small percentage of the budget, there are instances where that fine revenue does support programs, it does support services or even staff positions. And so library directors can say, well if I eliminate fines then I'm gonna have to either stop a service or fire someone; and that has, of course, very real consequences for that person. My take on it, it's not a binary decision we can eliminate library fines and we can save services programs and staff positions. We just have to really work for it.

GOLDSTEIN: Is there momentum moving toward making this even more of a reality? Or are there still significant obstacles ahead?

WOODWORTH: I hope that it has reached a point in which communities around the United States will take a look at this; be able to measure what they want not only for themselves but their friends and neighbors and be able to make a decision to eliminate library fines in their community. And what I'll say to that end is that it's an investment in the community... And it's the investment kind of planting a tree; it is shade that you will find years down the line. It will help in terms of providing people with basic literacy skills; which improve their job prospects, which improve their lifetime earnings, which improve their mental health, mood, parenting. All of these things are interconnected. And the library is uniquely poised to be able to make that difference.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Andy Woodworth New Jersey librarian and founder of the website.

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