Library Fines: Yea, Nay, or Pay it Forward?

By Micaela Walker

Why does the public library system lend out materials for free but charge people for lateness and loss?  There are two basic reasons, but their effectiveness is largely debated. First, libraries want their stuff back so they can lend it out to other people. Fining people is meant to incentivize them to be prompt and responsible with their loans. Second, libraries need to increase funds to pay for replacement material, among many other fiscal needs. However, neither of these goals seems to be ideally met by traditional fining systems which charge between 10¢ and $3 per day depending on the loan item. Libraries across the country have responded with 2 opposing policies; eliminate fines entirely or send the fines to collection agencies.

A Brooklyn Library card allows you to reserve and check out books as well as pay outstanding fines at a library kiosk and online from home.

A Brooklyn Public Library card allows you to reserve and check out books as well as pay outstanding fines at a library kiosk and online from home.

According to Slate from February 2017, many librarians have concluded that the fines are more effective at deterring people from using the library altogether than encouraging them to return materials. The long term effects of this kind of alienation from a public institution are addressed in this article on libraries and social exclusion:

“Right now, as libraries face limited or diminishing public funding, fees and fines represent alternative revenue. This is a burden, created by citizen voters, public administrators, and librarians, that demonstrably bars low- income users from library access, particularly when applied as a stop on in-house services like computer use. In each of these examples, deliberate decisions are made by those in power—decisions that perpetuate disadvantage for low-income families and blue-collar workers.”

For the bottom line, then, the amount collected in fines may effectively cancel out the amount spent on outreach while instilling in people a sense of shame rather than a love of the library.  This thinking is what motivated Salt Lake City to do away with late fees entirely.

However, the state of Wisconsin in 2016 voted to send fines over $50 to collection agencies, in part to recover the $3.5 million in costs the state racked up due to lost materials. Plumer Lovelace, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association argues that the state needs to have some leverage, particularly when loaning out big ticket items such as iPads which are expensive to replace and in high demand.  The New York Public Library has the same policy. This year the NYPL started a program called Library Hotspot, where any family with a child in the NYC public school system without home internet access is eligible to borrow a wifi hotspot for the entire school year. The borrower has to be an adult and have less than $15 in outstanding fines on their account.  The fine for not returning the hotspot is $100 and having your library account frozen. It’s hard to imagine having a program like this with no penalties in place.

The modern public library system has always functioned on the simple premise that most people will be responsible with borrowed materials and believe in the value of shared public resources.  In the Slate article mentioned above, the Columbus library system reported that 95% of materials are returned on time, and eliminating fines had no real effect on the rate of return.  So, putting aside the most egregious offenders, most people probably incur library fines due to the same human fallacies – disorganization and forgetfulness rather than premeditated theft.

The penalties, however, have vastly different impacts on people in different economic circumstances.  While a person of means may see $10 in fines as a small donation to the library they are happy to give, a person with low income may see it as an impossible barrier to using the library at all.  There are parallels to parking violations that are incurred on public roads where even the most responsible driver among us gets the occasional ticket or violation eventually.  For some a $50 ticket might be annoying but quickly paid online with a credit card, while for others who simply can’t pay the ticket it can lead to a string of consequences that can result in loss of their driver’s license, their ability to get to work, and even jail time. The disparate impacts of fines are similar in the public libraries, whose mission is in part to serve those populations with the least access to information elsewhere.

A possible middle ground may be to hit up those that are already paying their own fines for a bit more cash to cover those that can’t. The method for doing so is already in action in stores across the country. “Checkout Charity” is by now ubiquitous in nearly every large scale retail chain and it is highly effective for fundraising. The most effortless “ask” is when a customer is prompted to add a donation amount on to their purchase total just at the moment they have their credit card in hand.  Options are either to round up (from, say $8.75 to $10) or to select an amount to add ($1, $5, $10 etc.) According to Marketing Magazine, the more in-line the store is with the charity, the more likely people are to donate.

I ask you: Who’s more likely to support the library than someone who is already in the library to pay their fine?? 

Left, the BPL kiosk screen. Right, screen at the drugstore with an ad for the supported charity.

Left, the BPL kiosk screen. Right, screen at the drugstore with an ad for a supported charity.


I spoke with Kenes Bowling, a manager at Unique Management, the “leading material-recovery service for libraries”.  He agreed that it would be a good idea although it would likely need to be implemented locally between library systems and the specific software they use.  Libraries that already have automated kiosks to track accounts and pay fines with credit cards could add a prompt to donate just as a person goes to pay their fine. Librarians could try different angles to see which ask was most effective, such as “would you like to help cover fines incurred by low income children at this branch?” or “x% of people say they can’t return to the library because they can’t pay their overdue fines. Would you like to make an added donation to help cover the costs?”, or even something unrelated to fines such as “would you like to contribute to our after school tutoring program?” You could even use matching grants or fundraising goal charts to further incentivise people to give.

While this would not change the behavior of those who aren’t paying their fines, it could help to support a loss forgiveness program where latecomers don’t have to pay their fines as long as they bring their items back. It could also improve the experience for the fine payer by transforming them from a ne’r-do-well into a philanthropist with the click of a button. They have their credit cards out anyway and maybe they will feel a little better about their own tardiness if they are helping others.

As for establishing good lending/returning behavior as early as possible, research has shown that kids are largely more responsive to incentives rather than penalties. This has been seen with everything from potty training to homework. What if a kid received a small reward, such as a bookmark or a pencil topper for returning all of their books on time?  It may give them just enough motivation to remind their parents that they need to find that stray copy of “Elephant and Piggie” and return it.

NB – I asked my son Roan (age 7)  what the most effective way would be to get him to return his library books on time, a punishment or a reward. He said I should buy him a motorcycle so he can be sure to get his books to the library on time (not happening, but I’m putting that in the “incentive” column).


Graham, Ruth “Long Overdue”. Slate. February 6, 2017.

Gehner, John. “Libraries, Low Income People, and Social Exclusion”. Public Library Quarterly. March 15, 2010.

Piper, Matthew. “Salt Lake City Libraries do away with late fees”. Salt Lake Tribune.  May 25, 2017.

Warburton, Bob. “Wisconsin Law Validates Library Use of Collection Agencies”. Library Journal.  March 1, 2016

“Library Hotspot”.  New York Public Library.

Sanders, Sam. “Study Finds the Poor Subject to Unfair Fines, Driver’s License Suspensions”. National Public Radio (NPR). April 9, 2015.

Powell, Chris. “Checkout Charity: The Art of Asking for In-store Donations. Marketing Magazine.  December 7, 2015.

Belsky, Jay, Ph.D.  “Rewards are Better Than Punishment: Here’s Why”. Psychology Today. September 25, 2018.

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