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Library fines punish the poor and don’t work

Library fines are a flat charge disproportionately impacting people who are most likely to have difficulty maintaining a reliably-scheduled life and least likely to be able to pay — that is, people with insecure work and housing.

There have been few studies on the effectiveness of library fines in the last decade, and most were in academic libraries. They tend to indicate either a very minor statistically significant effect on rates of items being returned on time, or no correlation at all. On the other hand, libraries that remove overdue fines anecdotally report:

So the onus should be on those arguing to retain fines to prove that fining people for returning items late actually works as an effective incentive for timely return of items compared to other less punitive approaches.

“Removing overdue fines” does not equal “No consequences for returning items late or not returning them at all”. Equally, “Fining for overdues” does not equal “All items are eventually returned”.

Every library, regardless of whether they impose fines or not, has a level of “shrinkage” in the collection that has to eventually be written off. Typically libraries that have removed fines (and indeed also those that haven’t) use some or all of the following techniques to get things flowing through the system:

Further reading