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Library Commission pushes for fine-free books

Wednesday, January 26, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Austin librarygoers may be in luck: The Library Commission unanimously voted Monday to do away with late fees for overdue library books. While City Council still has to approve the resolution in order for fine-free libraries to become the new norm, the commission’s vote is a major step in a policy that has been a long time in the making.

Three years ago, the American Library Association asked libraries nationwide to eliminate late fees, citing evidence that the fees disproportionately impact low-income library users. Almost 400 U.S. library systems have taken this step, including those in most major metropolitan cities and a handful of Texas cities. Austin is behind the curve, said Commissioner JC Dwyer, who presented the draft resolution to his colleagues at Monday’s meeting.

This isn’t the first time the group has proposed a fine-free system. In 2020, the commission punted the initiative, which was first pioneered by then-Chair Catherine Hanna, largely because of financial uncertainty amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Fines for children’s material have been eliminated at the Austin Public Library since 2019 “with no negative effects,” according to the resolution.

“It was the right policy then and it’s the right policy now,” Dwyer said when presenting to the commission. “What has changed is that the environment is much more favorable to this policy now. A few years ago it was a fairly new concept.”

Charging fines for late books presents an equity issue, proponents of the policy argue. Even small overdue fines can lock patrons out of their accounts, restricting access to the public goods that APL has envisioned as being equally accessible to all.

“It’s a small amount of money, but that small amount of money could mean a meal to a family of smaller means,” Dwyer said. “This does affect every corner of the city, but primarily it is families that can least afford it that are hurt the most. Right now, when a family accrues a fine of $25 they’re sent to collection …. That serves nobody except the collection agency.”

The effectiveness of fines as an incentive to return material has also been called into question. The resolution notes research that shows eliminating fines “does not decrease return rates, and in fact may increase library card adoption and library usage.”

“When people owe a lot of money for books, they’re less likely to come back to the library, not more likely,” Dwyer said. “Places that have done away with late fees have found that users do return, often with materials returned with them.”

In Fiscal Year 2018-19, the Austin library collected more than $428,000 in fines – a point that made some wary of adopting the policy when it was first on the table. But Dwyer doesn’t think the policy will be a big financial burden, especially since the fines contribute to the city’s General Fund, not to the libraries themselves.

The fine-free proposal will not be retroactive because the state considers past debts public property, and entities are required to pursue them. If Council chooses to adopt the policy, it would be incorporated into the budget-making process for FY 2023, unless Council made a midyear adjustment. Chair Patricia Dabbert asked the commission to be present at City Hall when Council considers the policy to cheer it on.

“Now is the right time, and I appreciate everyone supporting this,” said library chief Roosevelt Weeks. “A lot of people don’t come to the library because they have fines on their card. This is huge.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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