Jamahl Spann, Billing Assistant at the DePaul University Library, reflects on the Library’s recent decision to abolish overdue fines. This new policy was guided by CARLI, our statewide system of academic and research libraries in Illinois. All I-Share libraries who are members of this system, including the DePaul University Library, have collectively ended the practice of fining patrons for most overdue materials.
“I-Share Libraries to end overdue fines and processing fees by Jan. 1, 2021.” Yep, there it is, on my screen in bold letters. The two approved proposals, by the CARLI Board of Directors, will “end the practice of I-Share libraries charging overdue fines for their main circulating collections and ‘processing fees’ for any lost materials.” This move, without a doubt, is a major win for I-Share patrons, as it is one less barrier to library access.
In light of CARLI’s decision, there is still one glaring stipulation found in the proposals. I-Share libraries, at their discretion, can still charge overdue fines to local patrons for “limited access collections such as reserves, equipment, and other special materials.” This exception should be viewed as yet another opportunity to remove barriers to library access, especially during times of financial hardship related to COVID-19. As I-Share libraries, we should explore ways to abolish overdue fines entirely and their barriers (mental, social, and financial) to library access.
Overdue fines represent a form of social inequity.
Of mental barriers, patrons can experience several negative emotions ranging from resentment, hostility, to shame (Boehme & Mihaly, 2018, para. 12; Ross, 2019 para. 8). Within libraries reporting on patrons’ feelings towards overdue fines, there is a consensus that patrons dislike being fined, but will not return an overdue item if they still need it . These patrons will tend to suffer the anxieties of being fined but, as a whole, are not moved by fines or the potential loss of their library privileges (Boehme & Mihaly, 2018, para. 12). Overdue fines also present emotional barriers for staff who feel confined in a negative role towards patrons, as enforcer (Holson, 2020, para. 11; LMU Library, 2018, para. 4). Promisingly, for patrons that are dismissive of overdue fines, blocking methods or extended loan periods have shown to be a better solution (Boehme & Mihaly, 2018, para. 13; Ross, 2019 para. 2).
Regarding social barriers, with overdue fines representing a “form of social inequity,” library access and privileges become systematically exclusive (Bowman, 2019, para. 8). For patrons that are unable (or unwilling) to pay their outstanding overdue fines, the argument then becomes the importance of patron access to library resources versus a “teachable moment” in accountability for overdue fines (Ross, 2019 para. 9). Once blocked, it is unfortunate when a DePaul patron will stay away from the library altogether because of their overdue fines. Most of these patrons had actually returned their items, but have mounting fees. For these patrons, fine amnesty days have worked at several libraries, including DePaul, and encouraged many patrons and items to return (Bowman, 2019, para. 25).
The financial barrier… can create a domino effect in restrictions and burdens extending far past the library.
Specifically of financial barriers, in a recent NPR article, Ramiro Salazar, President of the American Library Association’s public library division, stated that “Library users with limited income tend to stay away from libraries because they may be afraid of incurring debt.” Furthermore, the American Library Association denounced fines as “a form of social inequity as they serve as a bigger barrier to service to those of limited means than more affluent patrons” (“Call for Public Comment,” n.d., para. 6). At DePaul, it happens all too often that a patron is unable to pay fines and is then blocked from library services, registering for classes, and graduating or receiving transcripts. The financial barrier that overdue fines present for patrons can create a domino effect in restrictions and burdens extending far past the library (Carter & Belser, 2020, para. 4).
Moving forward, the DePaul University Library will most definitely be revising its fine structure. Considering my position as the Library’s Billing Assistant, any reservations I had—with CARLI’s decision to put an end to overdue fees—are quelled, by the far greater importance of removing barriers to access. Depending on the collection, the need to hold patrons accountable for the items they check out will always have some sort of punitive action. Does it have to be an overdue fine? I encourage you, the reader, to challenge your stance on overdue fines and view the comments regarding the proposals on the CARLI website.
Boehme, A., & Mihaly, K. (2018, June 28). Fine efficacy: An experimental study of the effect of daily fines on borrower return habits. Scholarworks. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
Bowman, E. (2019, November 30). We wanted our patrons back — public libraries scrap late fines to alleviate inequity. NPR. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
Call for public comment: I-Share fines and fees. (n.d.). CARLI. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
CARLI board adopts proposals to end overdue fines and processing fees. (2020, September 30). CARLI. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
Carter, K., & Belser, D. (2020, April 24). How eliminating library fees advances racial equity. Urban Libraries Council. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
Holson, L. M. (2020, February 23). More libraries are doing away with overdue fines. The New York Times. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
LMU Library. (2018, September 28). Removing barriers to access: Eliminating overdue fines. LMU Library News. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
Ross, T. (2019, February 27). Not so fine with library fines? A look at the overdue debate. EBSCOpost.