Home » Uncategorized » Reflection on Participatory Service & Transparency

Reflection on Participatory Service & Transparency

Overdue fines were waived on patron’s accounts when my library first closed due to the COVID pandemic, so patrons would be able to access the online resources. We are finally back to our regular hours, and our director thought it would be an excellent time to go fine-free permanently. Luckily, the library board agreed. We went fine-free for the same reasons Nashville Public Library and Salt Lake City Library did “to remove a barrier to library borrowing-blocked card privileges due to fines and to provide equitable access to as many patrons as possible” (Dixon, 2017). Many libraries are going fine-free, and they are seeing a massive increase in items getting returned. The Chicago Public Library saw an increase of 240% in book returns in a three-week period (Yu, 2020). We care more about getting books into the hands of children and people than we do about collecting a few cents. The fines at our library never were accounted for in the budget; they have never been part of our revenue. I have always had an issue holding a child accountable for overdue items because it’s not their fault if their parents/caregivers didn’t return the items; then, as adults, they can’t use the library because of their parents. Last week, I just had a young lady tell me she probably couldn’t get a new card because her mom had fines on her account. In the past, we have also done “amnesties in exchange for food bank items,” but it never seems like enough (Sifton, 2009).

We have not publicly announced that we are now a fine-free library; we still tell patrons we haven’t started charging because of the pandemic. There will be people in our community that will not agree with our fine-free decision. Once already since we have opened back up, an ex-board member went to pay her fines, and I explained how we still were not charging fines. She was not too pleased with that and said that people would keep books forever if there were no fines. I tried to explain that it was not the case that it actually encourages patrons to return items, but I know others will say the same thing.

I found the Fine Free Map fascinating I did not realize that many libraries were going fine-free, and we should get put on there once we announce that we are fine-free. Salt Lake City Library also stated doing autorenewals (Dixon, 2017). I am still unsure of how I feel about autorenewals, and I don’t think my library is to that point on implementing that, but maybe in the future.


Dixon, J. A. (2017, July 11). Nashville, Salt Lake City, Columbus eliminate fines. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2017/07/funding/nashville-salt-lake-city-columbus-eliminate-fines/.

Fine free map. Urban Libraries Council. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.urbanlibraries.org/member-resources/fine-free-map.

 Sifton, D. J. (2009). The Last Taboo: Abolishing Library Fines. Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v4i1.935

Yu, C. (2020, July 3). Chapel Hill Public Library announces it will no longer charge late fines. The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved from https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2020/07/ch-library-fine-0703.


  1. It surprises me how vehemently someone could object to *not* having fines to pay. The issue reminds me a little of a core idea of Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking.” Long story short, she was determined to be free of the music industry and just make art, so wanted a platform where fans who wanted her music would pay what they could if they wanted. She asked, and was crowdfunded and is very active on the Patreon platform now. A lot of this was happening as conversations about music piracy were really big, with the idea being that no one would pay because they would just steal everything. Instead, though, people aren’t really interested in stealing. They’ll support how they can and where they can. Circling back to libraries, fees aren’t really ensuring that patrons aren’t stealing; it’s a punitive measure that can disproportionately impact particular groups who weren’t looking to pick up and keep free books to begin with! It’s great to hear how this is playing out for your library.

  2. Great post, @angelina — I don’t really fine people at my little school library. I mean, they’re kids, right? Sometimes I may ask a parent to replace a book, especially if it is part of a set, but I feel like that’s different. Thanks for linking the fine free map — interesing! I wish King County Public libraries would get on board. My surrounding libraries have, so it will be interesting to see if King County follows suit.


  3. Great post, @angelina — I don’t really fine people at my little school library. I mean, they’re kids, right? Sometimes I may ask a parent to replace a book, especially if it is part of a set, but I feel like that’s different. Thanks for linking the fine free map — interesing! I wish King County Public libraries would get on board. My surrounding libraries have, so it will be interesting to see if King County follows suit.


    P.S., I think it’s strange that people have a problem with not paying fines!

  4. This was so interesting, Angelina. It surprise me too that folks would have a problem with fines going away. I think i understand why a board member might worry – lost revenue? But the benefits outweigh the negatives IMHO.

  5. Hi Angelina,
    Thank you for bringing up this important topic. And thank you for posting the Fine Free Map site – I am going to get my library on it today!

    In reference to your library, I know at one point there was a grant or program that helped libraries transition to going fine free. I don’t recall the specifics (if this was state or federal) and I don’t know if there is still funding available, but it helped to cover some of the lost “revenue” as the library weans off of collecting fines. My library is small, but like yours, we have never included revenue from fines in our budget.

    North Dakota State put together a Public Library Director Toolkit LibGuide on going fine free https://library-nd.libguides.com/publib/finefree and ALA has some info, too at https://www.ala.org/tools/atoz/fines-and-overdues.

    I have encountered some interesting, and to me, surprising views from patrons about going fine free. Patrons often think it’s foolish of us to go fine free because we are “losing” money and they think users should be held “responsible” for returning books on time. As Megan mentioned, fines are punitive – I don’t think public libraries should have policies that are punitive in nature, since our mission is to provide access to materials. Libraries must always be alert to the existence of barriers to access and do their best to remove them. Fines are a barrier that negatively and disproportionally affects those with lower socioeconomic standing. I will explain that, often, those who could most benefit from the public library, are afraid to use the library because of fines. People don’t want to get in trouble and don’t want to be shamed or embarrassed. There are parents who restrict their kids to just one book (or no checkouts) because they are worried about the consequences of not being able to get books back on time – this could be due to a busy and hectic work schedule balancing various jobs or because they don’t have reliable transportation (their car often breaks down).

    Many patrons are concerned that people will not return their books on time, or at all, if there is no threat of a fine. These patrons are unhappy because they believe that they will have to wait longer to have a chance to checkout a book they want. I then explain that if a user does not return an item, they cannot checkout any more books until they return it or speak with us about it. (If a book that is lost is old, we may simply waive the need to replace it. If they can get a copy off of Amazon that is less than the cost on the item record, we will happily accept that.) I remind them that while we do want our materials back, we are not looking to make money off of our users. The studies that were done on the libraries that piloted the concept of going fine free showed that, in the absence of fines, people that would normally return their books on time continue to do so, and those that typically return books late, continue to do so. In other words, fines (or the lack thereof), don’t influence people’s behavior.

    Another common reply to telling someone that we no longer collect fines is, “oh, but that’s how I help to support the library *chuckle*”. This is ok, but it comes from a point of privilege. Those who are willing to keep a book until it’s overdue and pay overdue fines, choose to do so because they know they can afford the fines. Again, we want to remove policies that are punitive to only a select group. If someone would like to donate money to support the library, they should feel free to do so, and it is much appreciated, but it shouldn’t be required to remain in good standing. Not to mention, I didn’t become a librarian to shake people down for money or be a literal “gatekeeper” – I don’t want to be a debt collector.

    Fines are contrary to what I think public libraries should be – friendly, welcoming, safe places that provide access to information, materials, and assistance.

  6. This was so interesting–I love that SFPL went fine free, and Wollongong Public Library (where I was living in Australia) is fine free too. It really removes that little bit of stress about using the library and I know I at least feel just as urgent about returning things (especially if I know there are other holds on it). There’s plenty of research about fine-free libraries at this point, so maybe it’s worth making a simple infographic about it to educate board members (and the general public) when you do make the announcement! Letting people know that you trust them to return materials without fines seems to me like it would increase people’s connection to the library. It’s part of community building and transparency!

Leave a comment

The act of commenting on this site is an opt-in action and San Jose State University may not be held liable for the information provided by participating in the activity.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *