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Austin joins growing list of cities eliminating library late fines

Tuesday, February 22, 2022 by Kali Bramble

An ordinance eliminating late fees at the Austin Public Library has received unanimous approval from City Council, making Austin the latest of nearly 400 cities across the country to adopt such a policy.

The ordinance, sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo, follows a recommendation issued last month by the city’s Library Commission, following a 2019 resolution from the American Library Association stating that late fees act as an economic barrier to lower-income users.

“We know that fines have a disparate impact on different users … so this is one of the ways we can continue to make sure our libraries serve their mission of providing access to the community regardless of economic background,” Tovo said. 

In 2018, Council passed a similar ordinance eliminating late fees for children’s materials with the aim of broadening library access for Austin’s youth. Since then, the American Library Association’s efforts to institute universal relief policies have caught on in cities including Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth.

Once regarded as common sense, late-fee policies have drawn criticism in past years for their tendency to unevenly punish lower-income users who benefit the most from public resources. In some cases the consequences can be severe, as fines outsourced to private collection agencies can damage users’ credit standing. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that fees have minimal impact on curbing late returns.

Library users can safely expect no further late charges following Council’s action last Thursday. For those with outstanding charges, however, there are still a few details to iron out.

“One tricky part that isn’t completely resolved is what to do about those who have existing late fines, and I would like to explore some options for waiving them and wiping the slate clean,” Tovo said. “I know our Public Library Foundation is willing to assist to the extent that they can, but my hope would be to come up with a city solution and allow (APL) to use its resources in other ways.”

Photo by Heffloaf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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