LOS ANGELES, California — More public libraries are removing late fees and clearing patrons of their debt. It’s something happening across the country because no matter the size of the library, access is crucial.
John Szabo, the city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, says the no-fine policy was implemented in 2020.
“The public library is that one institution in the community that absolutely serves everyone," Szabo said. “We never want to have a barrier to access because this library belongs to every Angelino. Wealthy Angelinos, poor Angelinos, documented, undocumented, those with homes, without homes, of all ages. When you really start talking to people about the reasons to go fine-free, increases to access, removing a barrier in many cases to families that need the library the most. It all pointed in the direction of making this decision.”
It’s a decision libraries are making across the country. Nearly every state in the U.S. has at least one public library that has gone fine-free, according to Urban Libraries Council.
The New York City Public Library is notably one of the most recent.
Many leaders like Michelle Mears, the library director for the Rolling Hills Consolidated Library, have been fighting for the policy for years. It's a two-country library system in northwest Missouri.
“Seeing the bigger libraries take the leap to remove overdue fines has been really uplifting and amazing for us in the library profession. It really feels like the time is now to embrace this policy," Mears said. “In my history in libraries, at every public library I’ve worked at, I’ve worked to eliminate overdue fines. And at my very first public library, a very tiny town of 10,000 people, I just said hey we don’t really need this. It’s .6% of the total budget. If we do away with it, we’re not going to suffer. The hardest part was when you would see families with multiple children, possibly, and of course, children read a lot of books. So you don’t check out one book at a time, you check out like six books at a time. At 10 cents per book, per day, in a very short period of time, a family could be looking at paying their overdue fines or buying groceries.”
That is just one of the reasons she fought as hard as she did. Whether in Los Angeles or a small Missouri town, she says families in need should be at the forefront of decision making.
“And so the worst part was when you’d see parents bringing their children in and you’d overhear them say something like you can only have one thing because we can’t afford these overdue fines," Mears said. “So parents, themselves, were looking at that financial liability and restricting their kids usage of the library because of it. And of course that’s crazy because kiddos need books, they need so many books, they need to be surrounded by books, they shouldn’t be restricted or punished because there is this possibility of a financial punishment for turning in something late.”
In this case, children may be affected the most.
“Knowing that young people are going to be able to use the library when they might not have been able to before because their family or their mother or father, may have owed, ya know, $19 or $22 dollars or something like that," Szabo said.
Szabo explains they have been discussing this for quite some time. Five years ago, they tested it for two weeks to see what would happen.
“During that two-week period, we had almost 70,000 items that had long been overdue come back to the library, we had 7,900 people sign up for library cards in that two-week period, and the most important number form that two-week period, is more than 13,000 library accounts were unblocked, were freed up to use the library again," Szabo said.
Now, as they see this decision play out, Mears and Szabo say it’s a move towards a more equitable society.
“We think of the library as an arts and culture organization, an education organization, an immigrant integration organization, work force development, there is just so much the library can do and meet the community where their needs are, and have real impact," Szabo said.