Salt Lake City’s library system is pretty much what you’d expect for a large city: multiple branches, plenty of events, books galore. But now, reports the Salt Lake Tribune’s Matthew Piper, the system lacks something familiar to most librarygoers: late fees.
The Utah capital’s library system has decided no longer to fine patrons who turn in books late. Instead, reports Piper, the library will forego an anticipated $75,000 in revenue (about .3 percent of its budget) in exchange for freeing itself of the hassle of hounding patrons for late books.
Though the fees do produce revenue for libraries, they often undermine the purpose of the institution. The library’s executive director tells Piper that most of the system’s fines are owed by patrons in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which means that library fines disproportionately affect people on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale.
That fits national trends. As Ruth Graham reports for Slate, library fines can deter the people who need books most from checking them out—and removing fines can increase circulation. The move also fits the policy adopted by the American Library Association, which pledged to eliminate barriers to library access like overdue charges in an attempt to extend its services for poor people.
The national trend toward eliminating fines doesn’t only affect people at public libraries. As NPR’s Scott Simon reported this March, Harvard has decided to stop charging a 50-cent-a-day fine for overdue books after reports that the fees were putting stress on students.
Not all libraries experience a surge in circulation after eliminating fines. In Lincolnshire, Illinois, reports the Chicago Tribune’s Ronnie Wachter, getting rid of the fines reduced paperwork for librarian but did not change patrons’ librarygoing habits. But amnesty programs like ones adopted in Los Angeles and Chicago have fueled circulation increases, retrieving long-lost books and reintroducing readers to the library.
You might think that library fines aren’t a big deal, but they are to people who have been subjected to efforts by library-hired collections agencies to get that money. Despite U.S. Department of Justice instructions to stop jailing people for fees they could not pay, at least one municipality in the U.S. has said it plans to enforce a harsh ordinance that makes failing to return books a jailable offense.
That won’t happen in Salt Lake, but don’t think library patrons can get off entirely scot-free. A charge will still apply for lost books, reports Piper.