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We’re fine without fines

I had an interesting conversation today with a student worker who wanted to know if we charge for replacement ID cards. I said no, and that even if there was a policy in the past, I was not in favor of charging students extra for things, especially since most students have little money. I pointed out that it’s possible a lost ID is at campus safety, so it might be good to ask the student to check there before having a new one made, but otherwise, just make the replacement. The student worker said they hadn’t heard a librarian say anything like that before.

We also don’t charge fines at my library, although if a book is never returned we do bill for replacement. one of our staff has been calling patrons with bills, and she said today that they don’t always believe there will be no charge if they return a long overdue item and some have even said they don’t return it out of fear of a big fine.

When I worked at a public library, “fine free” was becoming popular. In 2017, NY Public Library System president Anthony Marx wrote about some forays into fine amnesty and fine free borrowing for kids and noted that in response to those who worried about what fine free tells people about responsibility, “what is truly the greater moral hazard? Having fines or not having fines? In my view, teaching kids that the library is not an option for the poorest among them is absolutely unacceptable.” Indeed. It has always really frosted me when kids can’t use the library because of fines.

Because it turns out, library fees and fines are regressive. And now the Chicago Public Library has become the largest American library system to go fine free. Library Commissioner Andrea Telli had a similar response to the question of whether eliminating fines erodes accountability: “Libraries don’t necessarily want to be in the morality business, and we don’t want to make the assumption that if a book is late or someone can’t pay for a fine, that they’re delinquent or bad in some way; they may just be in a place in their life where they can’t pay the fine.”

Exactly. It turns out the value of returned items is often higher than that of fines collected, and that fines don’t deter people from returning items late — they just prevent people from feeling the library is for them. Which is not in line with the values of librarianship, or of human decency generally.

If the administrations that provide our funding want fines to be part of our budgets (which is not even necessarily the case — in Chicago, fines never went to the library), we need to help them learn about equity and inclusion, and stand with our colleagues who point out that we’re fine without fines, but excluding our patrons because they can’t pay is not fine.



About Deb Baker

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader, and library director at a community college. She muses about library issues at The Nocturnal Librarian ( and blogs about books, reading, and life at bookconscious ( Her family includes two awesome offspring, a husband, and the cat who adopted them. And a crazy rescue kitten.

8 responses to “We’re fine without fines

  1. Growing up I always figured that the sign of real readers were fines and overdue books. When I was a single mother of three children, we were closed out of one library due to a $25.00 fine caused by my being temporarily out of a car. G-d Bless You All!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Deb Baker

      Yikes! I think you bring up a good point– people who get fined are USING the library. There is so much hand wringing over whether people read or care about libraries, why punish the people who do? Thanks for reading and commenting and I hope you keep your books as long as you need them!

  2. I agree. Thanks for writing this.

  3. We, here, in Homer, Alaska Love our Librarians, they make an impossible task, possible. They will seek to answer any question I might have, and do it with a smile. That is why I am a “Friend of the Library” I send them a check every year to thank them for being there, to answer my questions…..To just be the kind of neighbors one dreams of, come true…..

  4. How lucky are we here to have this beautiful Sun shining for us, gifting us with another day of Life, how many of Us think to thank that Sun for shinning? How many of Us think to thank this Planet Earth for the very Breath it provides Us, that we need to live? None of it is possible,unless we all Live and Work together! This is the song I sing, every-day I wake up with the breath of life, and I; I am grateful for that Blessing. So every day, I look out of my window, and thank that Sun for shinning, and I say out loud; “Hey! Great Clod!” What next….. From the “River WHY? By David James Duncan. A book I found in my local book store, thank God, they are still able to be here, because I spend my money there, instead of ordering it on the Big “A”…..They stock a wonderful supply of Local made cards, by great artists, which I am happy to buy to send to my friends, to tell them I was thinking of them and this card is perfect for them to receive…..And so, life continues on it’s Merry Way, I am thinking of you Deb, and trying to find a beautiful card to send to you, if I can find your mailing address. I am NOT a Creep, I just appreciate Librarians……

  5. Libraries are one of the least expensive means of promoting an educated public and of maintaining a vibrant democracy. Fines are punitive. People are late returning books for so many reasons that have nothing to do with responsible book borrowing but often with responsibilities in other parts of their lives – like trying to balance home, work, and school. Or not having ready transportation to the library. Or being ill. Or just forgetting the date the book is due or where it is. I’m rarely late with library books now, but decades ago I waited for the once-a-year fine free day to return overdue books. My budget was so tight that even a small library fine could knock me over.

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