The record for the longest overdue book in the country goes to “The Law of Nations” by Emer de Vattel. It was checked out from the New York Society Library in 1789 by none other than George Washington and wasn’t returned until 2010 — 221 years after it was due. The society generously waived the estimated $300,000 fine.
Overdue fines have been a way of life in libraries for well over 100 years, and libraries have discussed eliminating fines for more than 50 years. The fines-free movement has recently received renewed attention, as an increasing number of public libraries have eliminated daily overdue fines because of the social inequity they cause in their communities. For most libraries, fines have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, a fact that we found true at the Omaha Public Library. About 61% of OPL cardholders living in ZIP codes with below-median income levels in 2020 were blocked from using their cards because of outstanding fines and fees.
Access, as defined by the American Library Association, is one of the core values of librarianship. It maintains that all information resources provided by the library should be readily, equally and equitably accessible to all library users. Charging overdue fines creates a serious barrier for people who need libraries the most.
In a February 2019 blog post for library vendor EBSCO, librarian Tammy Ross said, “More and more library professionals contend that charging overdue fines undermines the mission of libraries to provide free and equitable access to information so that all citizens may educate themselves. They argue that fines are a barrier to access, especially for low-income families, and can create adversarial relationships between customers and library staff members. Even worse, patrons who are ashamed of their overdue fines or financially unable to pay them may stop using the library entirely.”
In a 2017 Library Journal survey, librarians estimated that “14% of borrowed materials are returned late, with patrons in larger library systems slightly more likely to return items after their due date. The vast majority of overdue materials, 88%, are returned within one week of the due date.”
OPL implemented automatic renewals three years ago to help address overdue items. Most items automatically renew for a three-week loan period, up to four times, as long as no one is waiting for the item. At OPL, daily overdue fines account for 0.33% of the budget.
Of course, there are concerns that without fines, people may not return library materials at all and that people don’t develop a sense of responsibility or accountability without consequences.
To quote Curtis Rogers, director of communications for the Urban Libraries Council, “Overdue fines do not distinguish between people who are responsible and those who are not — they distinguish between people who have or do not have money.”
The phrase “better late than never” applies here. Eliminating daily overdue fines foregoes fines on items that are late but not on damaged, destroyed or lost items. Patrons who have not returned overdue items to the library after 21 days will be charged a replacement fee.
OPL’s board of trustees, with the recommendation of Mayor Jean Stothert, has unanimously approved a resolution to eliminate daily overdue fines. This month, the Omaha City Council will consider a resolution to make this change permanent, thus improving the public library for everyone. Patrons are being encouraged to reach out to their representative to share their support for the removal of this barrier to access in our community.