For Ithaca residents, an overdue copy of Harry Potter will no longer break the bank. The Tompkins County Public Library, citing a lack of a “clear benefit,” recently ended its policy of charging late fees.

February 5, 2019

Tompkins County Public Library Eliminates Late Fines

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Ever worried about returning a book late and having to pay fine for it? That won’t be the case anymore at Tompkins County Public Library, which eliminated its fine on late items starting Jan. 14.

The reason behind this decision, according to Library Director Annette Birdsall, is that libraries have realized fines have become a social equity barrier: some people can’t afford to pay the fines when they have to return something late, which brings them embarrassment and reduces their visits to the library.

“Fines have become a privilege and they — not only do they not work — they actually encourage people to keep materials longer if they can afford it. If you can afford it, you pay your fines, you don’t feel guilty and you support the library,” Birdsall told The Ithaca Voice. “We don’t love that it was a privilege and that people who couldn’t afford fines stopped using the library altogether.”

In addition to breaking the socioeconomic barrier, the TCPL also recognizes that late fines actually don’t work. According to a Colorado State Library whitepaper referenced on its website, “The scant research on the impact of library fines and fees does not indicate a clear benefit to administering these policies and may be costly to enforce.”

Although patrons will no longer receive late fee charges, they will still receive bills if they do not return an item in 30 days, according to TCPL’s frequently asked questions page. Past replacement fees and processing charges for lost or damaged items also still apply, the Library said.

The Tompkins County Public Library is not the only library going fine-free. The movement has already reached some members of the Finger Lakes Library System — such as Seneca County public libraries — as well as some libraries nationwide. Libraries in New York City also have renounced all fines on children starting October 2017.

In the past, libraries around the country have experimented with “amnesty days,” during which libraries were able to regain countless overdue books and reconnect with old patrons, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Although TCPL once collected around $100,000 in fines, overdue fines on average only make up less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the Library’s annual budget.

“We don’t want to rely on negative income, we want to rely on people supporting the library because they want to, not because of this artificial punishment,” Birdsall said to the Voice. “It’s exciting. I think it’s really going to open doors for people and allow us to really embrace our mission in a way that we just haven’t been able to because of that barrier.”