An Overdue Farewell

Recent changes to public libraries in New York City mark an end to a flawed system.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Jessica Mui

“Late fees” is a term almost synonymous with the library—but perhaps not any longer. The New York Public Library (NYPL), Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library unilaterally decided to remove the long-standing collection of late fees this September in hopes of making library access more equitable across economic boundaries. This action follows a recent trend in libraries across the country opting to change the way they retrieve overdue items. The move away from late fees is a much-needed change as they have been an impediment to the culture of the library.

It is important to note that the removal of late fees has not, in fact, removed the existence of fees entirely. The revised policy for the city’s libraries maintains that any person with missing items must pay the fee for replacement. However, this policy centers itself around practicality rather than penalty; an individual can have the fee canceled or refunded if the item is returned.

This isn’t the first time the city has toyed with the idea of fine leniency. The city introduced a one-time fine amnesty program back in 2017, which erased fines from all accounts of those 17 and younger to reintroduce previously blocked children to the library. The NYPL reported a 60 percent increase in library usage by kids previously barred from the library due to long-standing fees in the following year—a positive change that will hopefully be mirrored by this new system.

Other library systems across the country have abandoned fines as well. The Chicago Public Library (CPL) forwent the late fee system in 2019 after they found a disproportionate number of patrons with blocked cards between communities of varying economic statuses.

As libraries harbor the ability to provide information, entertainment, and services to community members, it’s contradictory for fees to be as punitive and exclusionary as they are. Kids find themselves in the awkward position of paying fines indiscriminately to adults and getting their accounts blocked as a result. The CPL’s survey found that a fifth of blocked accounts were those of children, and NYC’s amnesty program freed the accounts of up to 160 thousand children as a result. The commonality with which kids, especially because they are at a point in development when both literacy and enthusiasm for reading should be encouraged, were barred from access was counter-intuitive.

The function of late fees is clear at face value: to provide an incentive for individuals to return their loans on time. However, the cumulative cost of paying for overdue material becomes a burden on an individual’s ability to pay for basic living expenses. A disciplinary cost quickly becomes another reason not to go to the library. For instance, around 39 percent of San Jose Public Library users in 2016 had late fees tied to their accounts, leading some to believe that they should simply use the library less. This consequence is especially troubling since those who are discouraged from going to the library, whether by a blocked card or the anxiety of going with existing dues, are also those who are most likely to need library services such as the Internet or open computers. While the incentive for accountability can vary from mild inconvenience to a source of economic stress depending on the person in question, the system of late fees presents itself as less of an assurance of personal accountability and more of an economic barrier to a public service.

It is important that access to libraries is both equitable and welcoming to the community because public libraries are an invaluable resource. The library remains of use to many teens and older adults, and the majority of U.S. adults believe it is an important space to spend time and find resources in. Libraries offer a varied selection of media and important services, such as access to technology, local history archives, and community events. Libraries are also updating to exist in the digital space—the NYPL offers access services such as OverDrive, which has a selection of free e-books, audiobooks, and movies.

The long-standing existence of late fees has run antithetical to the library’s goal of serving the public’s need for accessible information. By creating an expense that can actively discourage individuals who rely most on the library, late fees have been a detriment to browsing and borrowing. The forgiveness of late fees in the past has produced great benefits, and the continual move away from late fees is a long-overdue development.