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Editorial: Overdue fines aren’t good for borrowers or libraries

Librarian Ana Campos stands between library shelves.
Librarian Ana Campos looks for a book in 2019 at the Central Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Before the library system in St. Paul, Minn., stopped collecting overdue fines in 2019, it was spending $250,000 a year to recoup $225,000. Library systems in large metropolitan areas across the nation have been finding that fines don’t provide much money — but they do keep low-income readers from using their local branches.

For that matter, the idea of having to face the local librarian with an overdue book is so chilling to many an adult or child that the dour “Dragnet”-style “Library Cop” became a beloved figure on “Seinfeld” in 1991.

It should be a no-brainer for L.A. County supervisors to eliminate library fines at their Tuesday meeting, as a resolution recommends. The city of Los Angeles did so nearly two years ago, though it’s hard to know exactly how that panned out because the pandemic made library access problematic for so long. Libraries in San Diego, San Francisco, Glendale and Burbank have done so as well. Orange County Public Libraries, with branches in most of that county’s cities, haven’t been collecting fines since July 2020, though that’s only “until further notice.”

Opponents of such forgiveness say that overdue books are the result of thoughtless (or absent-minded) users who are keeping publicly owned books out of the hands of other borrowers. If low-income library patrons find the fines untenable, by this reasoning, they should get themselves to the library more regularly.

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This overlooks some modern-day realities: Low-income residents often juggle multiple jobs or face transportation obstacles that make it harder to get to the library. Once a book is overdue, these residents are in a worse position to pay the fine. Studies show that middle-class and working-class people keep their books past the due date at the same rates, but poor people tend to keep theirs for longer, a sign that obstacles to access and anxiety about meeting the cost of fines are serious issues for them.

That’s why two years ago the American Library Assn. officially asserted that “imposition of monetary library fines creates a barrier to the provision of library and information services” and urged all libraries to consider doing away with them.

Here’s evidence that fines, not a selfish impulse to keep library books, keep people from returning their books: A temporary 2017 amnesty from fines brought in nearly 700,000 overdue books to San Francisco libraries, and restored the right to use the library to 5,000 people who had been staying away rather than pay the fees. The lesson: Eliminating fines is smart policy for library budgets as well. Replacing never-returned books is more expensive than anything the libraries bring in from overdue fines, which generally account for about 1% of a library’s budget.

That’s why, if the supervisors do the right thing and approve a no-more-fines policy Tuesday, they should include provisions to prevent the outright loss of books and other materials, by ending the borrowing privileges of scofflaws who take out numerous books and don’t bring them back.

It’s time for all library systems to consider the same practice. The state of California partially funds almost all public libraries within its borders and has numerous regulations about their practices. Legislation could prod libraries to develop some form of fine-free policy and perhaps provide additional funding to help make up some of the lost revenue.

Overall, though, both libraries and the public would gain. Libraries would see more books return, at least eventually. They would gain more patrons and more activity, which would mean more public support.

The main beneficiaries, of course, would be the rest of us. Libraries have always been a place where people could become as knowledgeable on almost any subject as their own reading ability and ambition can take them. In this era of division and disinformation, libraries are where the public can find quality information as well as computer services, entertainment and community events.

A child who loves books stands a much better chance of succeeding in school. One study found that children who read for pleasure, rather than just what they’re assigned, show improved mastery of subjects that have nothing to do with what they were reading. Various studies have shown that children whose parents read to them at young ages performed better in later years at vocabulary, spelling and math.

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Library fines are doing neither the public nor the public libraries much good. Our society shouldn’t allow 25 cents a day to stand between families and free access to books.


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