New York Public Library ends all late fees, allowing thousands to check out books in push for equality

Book jackets of two of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books. (Photo by Ela Dutt)

The New York Public Library system announced it would no longer charge late fees on overdue books and other resources and will waive existing fines in a move that will allow hundreds of thousands of people who had their library cards blocked to again check out reading materials.

The move from the nation’s largest public library system, which took effect Tuesday, is part of an effort to ensure that “knowledge and opportunity is accessible to all,” said Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library. Before the announcement, about 400,000 New Yorkers’ library cards were blocked because they owed at least $15 in fines – and more than half of those people live in high-needs communities, officials said.

Now, all existing fines and replacement fees have been cleared, and late fees will no longer be enforced on materials returned after their due date, the library said.

“Research shows that fines are not effective in ensuring book returns – New Yorkers are quite reliable and responsible, clearly respecting our collections and the need for them to be available for others to borrow. But, unfortunately, fines are quite effective at preventing our most vulnerable communities from using our branches, services, and books,” Marx said in a written statement. “As New York grapples with the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, it is all the more urgent that we ensure the public library is open and freely available to all.”

The library system collected about $3.2 million in late fees in fiscal year 2019, officials said, but fines have been suspended since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Officials said the library has found ways to compensate for the lost revenue from fines. Patrons will still need to pay replacement fees if they lose books or other materials, officials said.

The new policy covers the New York Public Library’s branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, as well as the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Public Library.

New York City’s library system joins cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and San Diego that have also wiped away late fees at their libraries. The Boston Public Library committed this year to eliminating all late fees, while the library system in Burbank, Calif., eliminated the balances of all fines and said it would no longer charge late fees.

Getting rid of late fees and waiving fines has shown to have an immediate impact in some cities. In the case of Chicago, the city’s libraries saw an increase in returned materials as well as card renewals, according to NPR. San Diego experienced a spike in circulation after implementing its policy.

In years past, about 50,000 New York City library patrons had been reported to Unique Management Services, a debt collection agency working with the city’s public library systems, according to Gothamist. Those handed over to the debt collection agency reportedly had fines that were more than $25 or $50.

Marx had been calling for the elimination of fines from the library system for years. In 2017, the New York Public Library’s branches and the systems in Brooklyn and Queens were able to clear roughly $2.25 million in library debts thanks to a one-time grant, resulting in nearly 161,000 children having their fees wiped clean. In an op-ed for Quartz that same year, Marx wrote that libraries were “crucial to our democracy of informed citizens” and the system of fines and late fees was “a true barrier to access” for families nationwide.

He reiterated that stance Tuesday.

“For those who can’t afford the fines – disproportionately low-income New Yorkers – they become a real barrier to access that we can no longer accept,” he said. “This is a step towards a more equitable society, with more New Yorkers reading and using libraries, and we are proud to make it happen.”

Brooklyn Public Library chief executive Linda E. Johnson said getting rid of late fees signaled “providing truly equitable access to everything the library has to offer.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, D, echoed the sentiment, saying the library system’s shift was “another major step towards making our public libraries, the heart of so many communities, accessible to all.”

“Eliminating fines will let us serve even more New Yorkers, allowing them to enjoy all of the resources and programs that public libraries offer to grow and succeed,” the mayor said.

 

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