October 16, 2021

New York City’s Three Library Systems Eliminate Late Fines

From a Joint Announcement (via NYPL):

New York City’s three public library systems will no longer charge late fines on books and other circulating materials, eliminating a barrier to access and ensuring that all New Yorkers have free and open access to knowledge and opportunity.

Brooklyn Public Library, The New York Public Library (which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island), and Queens Public Library have become the latest and largest public library systems to close the book on late fines, joining other major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Seattle, and Dallas to go fine-free. Combined, New York City’s systems represent the largest municipality to eliminate fines.

New York City’s three systems have also cleared all prior late fines from patron accounts, allowing New Yorkers to enter a new chapter of recovery and renewal with clean slates.

In an effort to welcome patrons back or to libraries for the first time, the three systems are holding a week of giveaways and special programs at all branch locations beginning on Monday, October 18. During that week, New Yorkers are encouraged to stop by, reconnect with their local libraries, check out materials, and return anything they may have at home—fine free. For more information on the week, visit the individual system websites.

The goals of this major policy shift (fines have been in place since the three systems were created at the turn of the 20th century) include encouraging increased usage of the library systems, as well as creating a more equitable system that does not disproportionately impact high-need communities. Under the previous model with late fines, patrons would have their cards blocked if they accrued more than $15 in fines. At the time of the announcement, about 400,000 New Yorkers would fit into this category, more than half in high-need communities.

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“Public libraries strive to be the most democratic institutions in our society, providing all people access to the resources they need to enrich their minds and improve their lives,” said Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library. “Eliminating late fines means providing truly equitable access to everything the Library has to offer.”

“During the pandemic, it was clearer than ever that we live in a Tale of Two Cities, with our most vulnerable citizens too often left behind,” said New York Public Library President Anthony W. Marx. “We must work to ensure that we are adhering to our mission of making knowledge and opportunity available to all, and that means addressing late fines. They are an antiquated, ineffective way to encourage patrons to return their books; for those who can afford the fines, they are barely an incentive. 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. 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.”

“For far too long, late fines have generated fear and anxiety among those who can least afford to pay, preventing them from opening library accounts, checking out books, or even coming through our doors. I vividly remember as a child having late fines on my card and hesitating about going to the library when I needed it,” said Queens Public Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott. “Until today, countless New Yorkers have been denied the opportunity to share in the great promise of public libraries – that anyone, no matter their circumstances, can have free access to sources of learning and ideas that will help them find success and joy in their lives. Late fines tell people they do not belong, and that shutting them out is simply the cost of doing business. This is not only unacceptable, but also totally inconsistent with our mission. We are thrilled to be able to make it possible for even more people to take part in everything we have to offer.”

While the details are slightly different per system (and specifics can be found at bklynlibrary.org, nypl.org, and queenslibrary.org), generally, under the new fine-free policies:

  • New Yorkers of all ages will no longer need to pay any late fines on overdue materials
  • In the past, library cards were blocked if they accrued $15 or more in fines; that will no longer be the case
  • New Yorkers will still need to pay replacement fees if they lose material. Materials are considered lost after being overdue for about one month. If materials are returned, however, no fees will apply
  • Cards will be blocked from borrowing additional physical materials if patrons accrue replacement fees (thresholds differ per system); note that even with a block on their cards, patrons can still access computers, e-books, and other digital services.

New York City’s three library systems have been closely evaluating fines for over a decade, testing various models and programs to determine the best path forward. Since 2010, they have conducted several “Read Down Your Fines” programs and two amnesties for kids and teens, the most recent of which was held in 2017. One year after that latest amnesty program, there was an over 60% increase in the percentage of previously blocked children and teens who then checked out materials from their public libraries; this effect was most pronounced in the lowest income neighborhoods.

Read the Complete Announcement

Additional Resources From Each Library

Brooklyn Public Library Announcement

New York Public Library Announcement

Queens Public Library Announcement

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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