All three New York Public Library systems are eliminating existing and future late fees in a move that aims to bring residents back to the library after the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a study conducted in San Francisco, book return late fees affect high-need communities disproportionately. Within the New York, Brooklyn, and Queens library systems those with a median household income below $50,000 were six times more likely to gain fines and have their card blocked.
Fritzi Bodenheimer is the Press Officer with the Brooklyn Public Library. She said that removing late fees aims to eliminate a barrier for those returning to the library this fall.
“A lot of people when they get fines, they also get nervous and then they don’t come back to the library,” said Bodenheimer. “That’s the last thing we want to happen. We really don’t want to go after people for their money, we just want the books back.”
Bodenheimer also said that those impacted frequently by fines are the most vulnerable in the community. The public libraries are able to track overdue books and the percentage of blocked cards within different branches, while checking the neighborhood’s poverty and income rates. In 2017, the libraries assessed blocked cards citywide and found that 80 percent of blocked youth cards were located in low-income communities.
Nancy Mandl has been a cardholder at the Brooklyn Public Library for over 30 years. She said that the new policy will hopefully correct practices that were isolating to low-income people in the community.
“Research shows that it wasn’t working,” said Mandl. “They were just setting up a blockage to people coming back to the library. They weren’t making any money from it and it was slowing book returns down.”
Mandl is optimistic about the new policy’s potential for attracting youth back to the libraries after the pandemic.
Callie Eisner, 22, is originally from Philadelphia, and is a student at Hunter College in Manhattan. She said that the New York Public Library has been a safe haven for her throughout the pandemic.
“Since I moved here for school, being able to use the libraries when everything was online helped me connect with the city and feel more at home here,” Eisner said.
For many people who are new to the city, the public library is a place to build community. Among its 92 locations, the New York Public Library system puts on 93,000 events each year. Meaning it shouldn’t be a place that people avoid. Eisner said that returning books to the Manhattan branches can be inconvenient, causing stress with late fees.
Kathy Clarke, 43, also stressed over late fees. She said that it was easy to avoid fines for her personal check-outs, but as a nanny it was difficult to keep track of her family’s.
“We had to come up with a system,” said Clarke. “We made a rule that no library books could go on the bookshelf and the receipt with the date had to be highlighted on the fridge.”
Late fines made the library a nuisance in Clarke’s work. She said that the new policy changed her attitude towards bringing the kids in, although she is skeptical about whether people will return their books on time.
“It’s a give and take situation,” Clarke said. “You know, everyone will have to do their part returning the books now. But, hopefully, it will help people come in more.”
Library cards used to be blocked once they reached a fine of $15. Now the program only asks for late books to be returned in order to check out new ones.
According to Brooklyn Library Press Officer Bodenheimer, other urban systems that have eliminated late fines, like the Seattle Public Library, still see books being returned on time. People may assume that without late fines there is no incentive for cardholders to bring the books back, but this isn’t the case.
“People don’t keep the books,” said Bodenheimer. “They generally respect the contract that a library has and wants to promote, which is providing a vast resource for the whole community to share.”
In Chicago specifically, eliminating late fines caused a 240 percent increase in book returns. Almost 11,000 cardholders who had fees erased with the policy then renewed or replaced their cards within a year. Five months after eliminating late fees 361,000 books were checked out, marking a seven percent increase from the previous year in only a few months.
More than 50 different library systems across the country have moved to eliminate late fines, but as a combined system the NYPL is now the largest to do so. This marks a major change in equitable accessibility to learning resources.
“We always say that libraries are the most democratic institutions,” Bodenheimer said. “You can come into the library and everything we have is free. You don’t have to have a certain income, you don’t have to buy a cup of coffee, you can stay all day and buy nothing. Fines challenged that notion, but now we can really say it.”