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Fine Forgiveness Programs

by on August 9, 2016

The idea of charging fines for overdue materials can be a contentious one in our field. While the question is not nearly as polarizing as our current state of politics, it does bring out strong opinions. Some staff believe fines should be assessed to encourage the prompt return of materials, while others believe that charging fines should have been done away with years ago and is a public relations downer. Whichever side of the fence you land on, the fact remains that libraries still charge fines, but many libraries are designing a number of innovative programs to offer fine forgiveness to their patrons. This article outlines some of the ways these programs can be used for the good of the library or community at large.


The most common program seems to be a “Food for Fines” campaign where patrons can donate food in exchange for a set dollar amount taken off of their fines. This benefits both the patron and the local food pantry or shelter. One library in Michigan developed a twist on the traditional “Food for Fines” program: The Rawson Memorial Library in Cass City, Mich., runs a “Fines for Fido” program where patrons pay their fines to the animal shelter or Cass River Pet Friends.[1] Director Kate Van Auken says patrons usually throw in a bit extra because it is for such a good organization.[2] While it is not a traditional fine forgiveness program, it does offer patrons a feel-good way to part with their money. The library staff also built additional programming around the idea, scheduling veterinarians to come in and discuss the best pets for certain homes and offering vouchers for a discount on spaying/neutering pets.

Increase Reading

“Read Off Your Fines” is another popular program that is usually aimed at kids with the idea that they can read in the library and use that time to pay down their fines. Since some libraries suspend use of library cards for excessive fines, this is a positive way for kids to “buy back” their privileges. Similar programs for adults give credit toward fines after they patrons have read a book.

Raise Awareness for Your Library

Fine forgiveness coupled with an increase in library cardholders sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? This fall, the Grand Rapids Public Library will begin offering $25 towards fine reduction to patrons that recruit new cardholders.[3] When asked how this idea came about, Grand Rapids Library Director Marcia Warner shared the language in the library’s strategic plan: “Persons in poverty are part of the city’s population. If they are not prepared to access and apply information to create knowledge, they will face significant challenges in both resiliency and in navigating life’s challenges and changes.”[4] This fine forgiveness program helps remove an information barrier.

Save Lives

The most innovative idea I’ve seen recently was in the West Florida Public Libraries, which now accept blood donations in lieu of library fines. The library will waive fines up to fifty dollars for participating patrons in exchange for a cardholder’s donating blood or making a good-faith effort to donate at blood drives held at the West Florida Public Libraries. A blood drive was recently held at the main branch, and more blood drives will be held once at each library branch during the next year. A patron may donate their credit to another individual or family.[5]

A Warning

One caveat before you plan your own fine forgiveness program: Some libraries’ auditors or legal counsels advise against creating fine forgiveness programs because it was felt that accepting food or other items in lieu of fines was, in effect, taking taxpayer money and giving it to another organization. Be certain to run the idea up the flagpole with the powers that be before putting the program into play.

[1] Kate Van Auken, director of Rawson Memorial Library, in an e-mail interview with the author, July 14, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marcia Warner, director of Grand Rapids Public Library, in an e-mail interview with the author, July 14, 2016.
[4] Ibid.
[5] William n.d., “Library Accepting Blood Donations For Fines,” NorthEscambia.com (Florida), June 29, 2016.

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