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Chicago Got Rid Of Late Book Fees At Public Libraries, Will NYC Do The Same?


Last week, Chicago became the latest and largest public library system to do away with fines for late books joining cities across the country including Washington D.C., Detroit and Phoenix. Many stakeholders in New York City  agree New York City should do the same. They disagree, however, on who ought to foot the bill.

“We and the other two NYC systems have long been considering this—it is enormously complicated in systems as large as ours,” said Angela Montefinise, a spokeswoman for New York Public Library, which runs branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. 

She pointed to a 2017 op-ed where the NYPL’s director Anthony Marx called for fine free libraries across the city, as a way to improve access to the city’s poorest New Yorkers. 

That year, New York, Queens and Brooklyn public library systems wiped away around $2.25 million in library debts for 161,000 children who had blocked library cards, with a one-time grant from the JPB Foundation.

“In a very expensive city, how to replace that funding is a unique challenge and consideration,” she said. “We don’t charge for our services, so the funding would need to come from a private donor or the City of NY.”

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The Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza.

Paul O / Flickr

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who chairs the council’s committee that oversees public libraries, said he too thought the city’s libraries should move to a fine-free system, but didn’t think it should be contingent on additional funding from New York City. 

“I want to fight for more money for them, but I think they can achieve this important goal, even before we get into a discussion about quote unquote reimbursing them for that,” he said.

Queens Public Library Director Dennis M. Walcott said making his library fine-free is something he hoped the board would act on in the next year. He said that choice in Queens isn’t necessarily contingent on city funding.

“It should be done, plain and simple,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. It allows us to bring our customers in and our goal is not to exclude customers. Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible in a variety of different ways.”

Fritzi Bodenheimer, a spokeswoman for Brooklyn Public Library, said they too were considering getting rid of fines, though she didn’t offer any specifics on a timeline. 

Fines make up a small fraction of money libraries bring in each year through grants, donations and public funding from the city, state, and federal governments. The New York Public Library takes in about $1.5 million annually in fines, out of an annual budget of $322 million, about half of which comes from city coffers. Brooklyn Public Library collects around $870,000 in fines for overdue books a year, out of a budget of $174 million. Queens Public Library takes in around $926,000 out of an annual budget of $161 million.

A chart shows how library fines are a very small percentage (about half a percent) of their overall operating budgets.

And they take a toll on library users. More than 470,000 New Yorkers across the city have blocked library cards currently for accruing $15 in fines or more, meaning they can no longer check out books. Nearly 60,000 of those blocked accounts are kids and teenagers.

Chicago is the latest and largest public library system to go fine free. But according to Curtis Rogers, with the Urban Libraries Council, more than a hundred cities have done so, and many report unexpected benefits.

“They’ve seen this increase in usage, after going fine free, or an increase in having late items returned in a timely matter,” Rogers said. “It’s just a really amazing show that the fines are not doing what they were intended to do.”

Washington D.C.’s public library system got rid fines for children’s accounts in 2012, and removed all fees for lost materials for kids three years later. They’ve changed fee structure for adults so there’s a flat $5 dollar fee if an item is more than 30 days late, as opposed to a day rate, an additional sliding fee that maxes out at $20 if the item is more than 60 days late, though those fines are rarely enforced for adults, according to Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan.

“By practice, D.C. Public library has never been one to heavily enforce fines,” he said. “The library has always favored fine forgiveness in order to make sure that residents were allowed to use the library and all the good things within our walls.”

They took it a step further last year, and removed most fees for printing and copying as well, he said. Since they’ve made these changes, circulation of materials has increased, and he added, their number of active library members jumped by 45 percent up to 450,000 members, he said.

“Our numbers have grown in the right way and I do think the elimination of fines has played a large role in that,” he said. 

The children's section.

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The children’s section at the Queens Library’s newest branch, a $41 million building in Hunters Point.

Jake Dobkin / Gothamist

At the Hunts Point Public Library, a New York Public Library branch manager Pamela Cora already has some leeway to cancel outstanding debts for patrons who need it, she said. 

“I’d much rather generate a sense of library love, versus a fear of library fines,” she said. “I would much rather waive $50 in fines, so that a child can take out some library books and study for a big test they have tomorrow; so that a teenager can be introduced to a new Manga, a new graphic novel, a great fiction title that they fall in love with.”

Library patrons milling around the branch, however, were divided on whether the city’s public libraries should end overdue book fees. Jackie Chen, 32, who was visiting the library with her two young boys, said she thought fines are a motivator for people to return books in a timely manner.

“It’s 25 cents. It just makes you notice, ‘Oh it’s time for you to return the books,’” she said.

But Tracey Lawrence, 41, who was helping her 12-year-old daughter with homework, had another take. 

“I do think doing away with the fines may make more people come to the library,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t take out a book, or I don’t allow her to take out a book just in case we forget.”

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