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The RTD news story “Richmond Public Library eliminates overdue book fines,” by Holly Prestidge, caught our eye. The city library has decided to discontinue the fees because they constituted “a punitive, inefficient and misguided barrier blocking our most vulnerable users,” according to Richmond Public Library (RPL) Director Scott Firestone.

Richmond libraries are one of more than 200 library systems in the nation that have opted to stop charging overdue fees. In January 2019, the American Library Association passed a resolution recognizing fines as “a form of social inequity.” The resolution called on all libraries to end the practice. Apparently accrued penalties are driving away the very people who most require the free resources that public libraries provide — low-income residents and children.

Our immediate reaction — and that of several letter writers — was to question why, once this policy takes effect, anyone would ever bother to return library property in a timely fashion. And, we thought, aren’t late fees an important tool that help teach borrowers personal responsibility? We were surprised to learn that research shows library fines have little to no impact on prompt returns — if anything, they tend to discourage people from ever returning to the library.

And, libraries are finding that wiping out the fees reaps positive returns. According to a November report published at NPR.org, after ending the practice of fining patrons, Chicago libraries saw a 240% increase in returned materials within the first three weeks. Andrea Telli, the city’s library commissioner, said it was clear that there had been many families who “couldn’t afford to pay the fines and therefore couldn’t return the materials, so then we just lost them as patrons altogether.”

Libraries from Baltimore to Los Angeles to Sarasota that have stopped charging late fines have seen a surge of new and returning patrons as well as a flood of returned materials. And consider that more than a quarter of overdue fines belong to child cardholders. Keeping them from the worlds of learning that libraries offer just because of a small fine is silly. Since overdue book fees make up less than 1% of the Richmond library’s total budget, this will have little financial impact. While we still believe that patrons should be held accountable for lost or damaged materials, we support the decision.

— Robin Beres

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