January 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Rethinking, and Ditching, Fines for Kids

Fines for late or lost books have always been part and parcel of library service. But should they be?

These days, libraries are rethinking the real value of the practice, and some have done away with fines. Others are tinkering with aspects of the traditional system by instituting amnesty periods or issuing fine-free cards for a certain users, such as children, members of the U.S. military, or those with incomes below a certain threshold.

A recent example of this policy shift is taking place at the New York Public Library (NYPL), where Christopher Platt, chief branch library officer, issued a statement stating that for a temporary period, “all kids and teens under 18 have had their library fines automatically forgiven and blocks on their library cards lifted. All kids and teens are encouraged to return any late materials.”

To spread word of this one-time fine forgiveness, libraries in all five New York City boroughs hosted events that highlighted branch services and events that families could access for free.

The results were encouraging. Over the first 12 days, for instance, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) saw 9,079 children and teens who benefited from amnesty use their library card, either for check-outs, renewals, holds, or logging into their online account. For youth patrons who had been blocked for owing $15 or more, 1,703 used their cards. “Too bad I’m not a kid! But I love this anyway!” one user posted on BPL’s social media account.  “This is amazing. Thank you for removing boundaries,” another chimed in.

Fritzi Bodenheimer, press officer for BPL, shares some advice for children’s librarians in public libraries who are considering instituting amnesty. For starters, “Think through how you can best communicate the amnesty to reach the most families,” she says. “Is it via email, direct mail, social media? Community partners?” She also urges brainstorming ways to get at the underlying reason why kids have trouble returning materials on time, and addressing the root cause.

Many librarians applaud moves like NYPL’s. “Fines cause negative interactions with patrons and impact those who can least afford it. [Yet they] are not an incentive to return materials in a timely manner,” says Monica Baughman, deputy director, Worthington (OH) Library. Worthington has been fine-free since 2016.

“The motivation was to get more items into the hands of our patrons, reduce the financial burden on those patrons, and transition interactions between patrons and staff to positive ones,” Baughman adds. Materials are still being returned at a comparable rate to the fine-enforced days, and community feedback to the dropping of fines has been positive.

Fine revenue comes at a price

SLJ’s sister publication, Library Journal, surveyed public librarians earlier this year on whether and how they collect late fees. Fines are a source of revenue for a large majority of public libraries, the survey showed. Ninety-two percent of survey respondents charge for late returns, with that money going into the general fund for about three-quarters of libraries.

But obtaining that revenue requires staff time: training in handling overdue fines; communicating with patrons, whether in person, by email, regular mail, or phone calls; and even retaining collection agencies.

Enforcing fines is “too time consuming and not worth the effort,” says Gina Seymour, library media specialist at Islip (NY) High School Library.

Many school districts have also moved away from charging fines. “But it is kept very quiet, as it is seen as perhaps not being good stewards of taxpayer money,” says Stacy Lickteig, project coordinator for library services at Omaha (NE) Public Schools.

Eliminating barriers to access

“We have worked very hard to eliminate any barriers of access,” Lickteig says. “All students, regardless of lost items or unpaid fines, should always have an opportunity to check out library books.”

Lickteig encourages the librarians in her district to have conversations with students in order to get at the reason why materials aren’t making it back, then waive fines as they deem appropriate. “Most important to us is that students recognize the library as a place where they always have opportunity regardless of what is happening outside of the library walls.”

Some schools are lenient with late fines, but they do keep students accountable for the replacement cost of materials. “If a student returns an overdue book, the fine is absolved,” says Patricia Neville, librarian at West Babylon (NY) High School. “However, if a book is not returned, the student must pay for the cost of the book.”

School librarians still make valiant efforts to recover lost books. “I issue notices every quarter, and at the end of the year, to our students through their homerooms for the books they owe, not only to the middle school, but also to their former elementary schools,” says Kristina Holzweiss, librarian at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School and SLJ’s 2015 School Librarian of the Year.

Once a student goes to the high school, she starts mailing the notices. She’s even arranged with district guidance offices to notify her if a child will be moving, so that she can attempt to get back any outstanding books before they go. She tries her best to help the other librarians in her district get materials back. “It just costs a stamp. Do I have to? No. But why not? Eventually, though, we mark them as lost and go on.”

Keeping the big picture in mind 

Some feel that by waiving fines, students are not learning to be responsible citizens. But, as Lickteig points out, when your patrons are children, it’s important to remember that late returns may not be their fault.

“The vast majority of fines that we see, especially at an elementary level, are out of the direct control of the students. In cases where students are moving from place to place, library books get lost in the shuffle. So the argument that we are not teaching them responsibility really does not make sense to me,” she says.

Meanwhile, as more materials transition to a digital format, which essentially return themselves, fine revenue will be reduced.

Nearly a third of respondents to the LJ survey stated that the use of digital materials is decreasing the amount of fines charged. In the meantime, “Giving students opportunities to read,” says Lickteig, “is never a bad idea.”

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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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Comments

  1. We had fine amnesty program last April. It was real pleasure to see children’s bright faces when they gained re-access to library materials. Few months later, I found some children who got forgiveness for their billed-materials coming with blocked library card again; most items are adult’s dvds that clearly not checked out by these children. Many parents are using their children’s card because their cards are blocked.
    No, these children shouldn’t get punished for what their parents did.
    Although, I don’t know how to prevent these happening again.

  2. Middle School Library Media Specialist here – and I do charge for damaged or lost books… but I also build so many stronger relationships through that interaction. And, as crazy as it sounds, students that are in a situation that they owe for damage or lost book, I tell them that I would be happy to loan them one of “my personal books” – but ask them not to return it to the book drop, rather hand it back in to me. I don’t ever keep track of those personal books but I can tell you this, I’ve just taken a student that has a lost or damaged book and shown them that I personally have confidence in them and trust them with my personal copy. It is amazing – I always get the books back in perfect condition – and often it opens up an opportunity for the student to share what is going on in their personal life that caused the original damaged or missing book (and I often can get them support that they need as no one previously knew what their struggles were). It’s all about relationships. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing and I’m pleased with the outcomes so far.

  3. We have never fined our kids for lateness. It only deters borrowing. For lost books we have had students pay for them and even had kids pay off via service to school, just to teach them the value of responsibility.

  4. One of the best things I have run across — and I borrowed this one from Mrs. Readerpants, thank you — is the idea of having students read off their fines. I don’t charge overdue fines, but the sticky part was lost books. As has been pointed out above, sometimes books are lost through no fault of the student. Students read off their fines at the rate of 1 cent per minute, and the great thing is I “have” to check out a book to them in order for them to do this, so they regain access as soon as they agree to try.

  5. I’ve always charged fines. It teaches students a life lesson — a very cheap life lesson. Charging fines does not deter my students from reading. On the contrary, it makes them responsible for their actions. Students love learning that they are becoming more repsonsible by returning checked out materials on time. If you teach students the reasons why, from the very beginning, all of the so-called negative aspects, which other seem to encounter, quickly disappear.

  6. Our library district includes is rural and very mountainous, making it difficult for many of our patrons come into the library often, especially when the roads are unplowed and icy. Many of our patrons are also very low income, so paying overdue fines is a challenge.

    To help overcome this, our overdue fine is only $0.50 per item (flat rate, not per day), and we allow several days grace before the fine is applied. We also have Fine Forgiveness Weeks around major holidays. Any and all overdue fines are wiped clean as long as the items have been returned for any patron who comes in. Forgiveness does not include replacement charges on lost items, but patrons are typically excused from at least one lost item, because life happens. In extreme cases, we may excuse more. If we can’t excuse a lost item charge, we are willing to work out a payment plan so they can keep full access.

  7. Mary Melaugh says:

    In my middle school library, I have never charged fines for overdues, but I do charge to replace lost books. However, I have learned to check with the students’ teachers and social workers to make sure there are not extenuating circumstances. Just this week, I wrote off three books that a student lost when his family was evicted from their home. I’ve also had cases of lost books due to fires and children being taken into protective custody. The last thing I want to do is add stress to the heap of things with which some of my students are already coping.

  8. BB,
    I work in a NYC High School where we stopped collecting fines years ago. We help our arriving freshmen each fall to settle overdue accounts with their previous schools. We send notices to home and classroom periodically. We levy a modest charge for a lost item. And, yes, we mark a lot of things lost and move on. I have noticed two things. First, lending books to ninth graders with outstanding losses in middle and elementary school means that our materials will rarely come back thereby depriving students of carefully selected resources bought from our tiny budgets. Second, many students think the NYPL policy gives them license to lose hundreds of dollars in textbooks with no penalty, and may I add, no responsibility. And they repeat the pattern again and again. Many of the suburban school districts hold students accountable for public property. When did that become a bad thing?

  9. At my junior high school I charge 10 cents a day per item up to a maximum of $5.00 per student. However, for the last 2 years I have turned the fines off for the 1st four months of the school year. I decided to give a 4 month amnesty because I noticed that many of the borrowed books were for various language arts classes and not for pleasure reading. However if a book is lost or badly damaged, students will always be expected to pay for a replacement copy.
    After the Christmas holidays I issue a school-wide reminder that the fines will be turned back on. Then, I only enforce fines on the students that I know have their overdue books at home or in their locker.

  10. Thanks for raising awareness on this important topic. The Colorado State Library has conducted a lot of research on this topic and released a white paper entitled Removing Barriers to Access: Eliminating Fines and Fees on Children’s Materials, written by Meg DePriest, which can be accessed at http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdelib/removingbarrierstoaccess. Our research shows that overdue fines do NOT result in patrons returning materials any faster, nor do they generate income for libraries. Our research DOES show that fines and fees have the most impact on children in low-income families, the very patrons that most need access to books. Thus, the white paper recommends that libraries eliminate overdue fines on children’s materials and reconsider charging fees for lost/damaged children’s materials in order to remove barriers to library use and best support our youngest learners. Please read the white paper for much more on the topic.

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