Librarians know that when times are tough, patrons need to use the public library more than ever. But an outstanding balance of overdue fines can be a barrier to library use by those who most need it. To some patrons, the $5 or $10 required to restore library access could be all they have left in their bank accounts, and asking for fine forgiveness can be embarrassing. Libraries and library systems across the country have been making news with creative—and pride-saving—solutions to this problem.
One popular solution that proactively prevents high fines is a day of amnesty. The library chooses and promotes a day when patrons can bring back any materials, no matter how long they’ve had them, and not have to pay a return fee. The Allentown Public Library in Pennsylvania chose to celebrate its 100th anniversary with an amnesty day this month.1 Throughout the past year, libraries as large as the Anchorage, Alaska public library system2 and as small as individual libraries in Fall River, Massachusetts3 and Seymour, Wisconsin4 have offered amnesty days to their patrons. But the largest effort took place in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced an entire week of amnesty for all Chicago Public Libraries.5 Not only do these amnesties offer patrons an opportunity to get back on track, but they can also help library systems that are struggling with their own reduced budgets avoid losing materials. Last month, the Phoenix Public Library announced that they were missing 40,000 overdue items.6 While they have made adjustments to policies and reminders to try to correct the problem, they and other libraries in their situation might consider whether a day of amnesty would be helpful in recovering materials.
Amnesty doesn’t address the issue of existing overdue fines, though, and libraries may be understandably reluctant to waive fines at a patron’s request. That’s where Food for Fines programs can help. On a particular day, patrons bring food items to be donated to a local homeless shelter and receive $1 in waived library fees per item, sometimes with a cap on how many total dollars can be waived. The Tinley Park Public Library, in a suburb near Chicago, offered a Food for Fines program this year.7 Libraries in Syracuse, New York8 and Kearney, Nebraska9offered similar programs, with Kearney’s extending through the Buffalo County Bookmobile program to reach patrons who couldn’t make it to the library. Some library systems, such as San Mateo County in California, go a step farther and offer a Food for Fines program on an annual basis.10 Such ongoing programs provide important recognition of the fact that the need for help always exists in every community, even in years of relative financial abundance.
That ongoing need is something libraries should take into account when designing programs and policies in support of fine forgiveness. While amnesty programs help prevent fine accrual and Food for Fines programs give patrons an opportunity to reduce fines, neither fully addresses the persistent issues faced by patrons in chronic homelessness and poverty. Some patrons will get their meals from the shelter that’s accepting Food for Fines donations, so for them, that library program is not an option. The highly mobile life of such patrons, who may regularly face eviction or have no stable place to call home, contributes to an inability to return library materials on time, if at all. The resulting fines lock them out of receiving full library service when they are among the patrons most likely to benefit from it. In the spirit of serving whole communities, libraries can build on the programs detailed above and extend creative solutions to patrons from all walks of life.