If you’ve ever failed to return a library book, you’re not alone—even George Washington was a library scofflaw. And if you live in Los Angeles, you can return your books without fear of a fine for the next two weeks, regardless of how long you’ve had them checked out. It’s all part of an increasing trend of library amnesty programs aimed at welcoming forgetful or unlucky patrons back into the fold.
The Los Angeles Public Library’s amnesty period, which lasts from February 1 through February 14, is as much an attempt to regain lost patrons as lost books. “Nothing can keep us apart, not even late fees,” announces the library on its website, in a Valentine's Day-tinged message about its amnesty program.
The concept of library amnesty started gaining steam during the economic downturn, write Susan Saulny and Emma Graves Fitzsimmons for the New York Times. Worried that the prospect of late fees was keeping patrons from collections, libraries started coming up with creative ways to get people back to the shelves. “We want our books back, and even more we want our borrowers back,” Lodi Public Library service director Nancy Martinez tells the American Library Association.
Libraries have long charged fines to patrons who keep books too long, but people have objected to the fees for just as long. In 1879, a group of librarians bickered about just how fines should be charged, expressing worries both that “our Yankee boys will buy their books…through the library” instead of through more traditional means and that large fines were unnecessarily punitive.
In more recent years, some libraries have come under fire for using collections agencies as debt collectors. Other libraries have seen patron numbers fall when they increased late fees. A few libraries have even dropped the punishment completely because the cost of collecting late fees outweighed the revenue they received for the overdue books. And libraries like the Queens Library allow young readers to “earn” their way out of library fees by reading at the library.
People who fail to return library books do cost libraries money and reduce the available collection for other patrons—an act that isn’t exactly neighborly. But programs like LAPL’s allow would-be readers to redeem themselves and return to the stacks despite their past sins. Is library fine amnesty a matter of justice or necessity? It depends on who you ask—after all, when the Chicago Public Library held two weeks of amnesty in 2012, it retrieved more than 100,000 books and materials worth approximately $2 million. They waived about $642,000 in fines—but for patrons who felt like they could use the library again, the gesture was priceless.