In The Name Of Access, Library Goes Fine Free

Arturo Pineda | September 22nd, 2020

In The Name Of Access, Library Goes Fine Free

Downtown  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Free Public Library  |  Elicker Administration  |  COVID-19


John Jessen and Shana Schneider
City Librarian John Jessen and Library Board President Shana Schneider. Arturo Pineda Photos. 

The New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) system announced Tuesday morning that it will no longer collect fines for late items including books, media, and other material. All existing fees from the previous years have also been eliminated.

Librarians, members of the library board, and city officials delivered that message outside of the downtown Ives Branch Library, congregating on its stone steps. After more than two years of discussion, the NHFPL Board approved the new policy in the Spring of 2020.

“Fines are a barrier for equity and inclusion” said City Librarian John Jessen. “It is a faulty premise and puritanical belief that to make someone do something we have punish them.”

The policy is part of an ongoing trend at over 200 library systems across the U.S., including San Francisco and Chicago. If these larger systems were able to eliminate fines, Jessen suggested that the NHFPL should be able to follow suit.

In 2019, the NHFPL charged $158,000 in fines. Of those, the library only collected $36,000, leaving $122,000 in uncollected fines. The New Haven Free Public Library Foundation subsidized the fees for the previous year. The money that is collected goes towards funding library programming.

John Jessen address the crowd

Jessen made it clear that the majority of people—between 65 and 75 percent of patrons— return their material on time. He described a common scenario in which first time users, especially children, check out many books but are not able to return on time. Children 12 and under made up 33 percent of the people who were fined.

The overrepresentation of children is because children under 12 require an adult to be present. Often adults are able to accompany the child on their first visit but are unable to follow up to return the books, said Jessen. Barriers like transportation and overlapping work hours can make it difficult to return materials on time.

To accommodate patrons who cannot visit the library during open hours, the library has created contactless 24/7 book drop services, located outside the library branches. The library also runs a curbside pickup for books during the week.

“If you took out five DVDs and forgot to return [them] for a week that’s $25,” Jessen said. “That’s grocery money.”

After paying the initial fee, many families and their children do not return out of fear that the scenario might repeat itself. In response, the library had to ban the patrons, as the previous policy was to ban patrons from checking out further materials once the fines reached $20.

Under the new system, no late fees will be applied, regardless of how late the materials are returned. Even if the materials are returned years late, no fines will be charged. However, the library will still collect fines on materials that are lost or damaged, and on library card replacement fees. For more questions, visit the Frequently Asked Questions page here.

Michael Monrad addresses the crowd
NHFPL Foundation President Michael Morand.

Jessen is not worried about people becoming less responsible now that fines will be gone. According to the studies considered by the staff and board, there is no discrepancy for returning material when a fine is present or not. In some cases like Salt Lake City, the system saw patrons return their books sooner after fines were eliminated.

To make up for the lost revenue, the library will continue to rely on donations and develop new initiatives like providing passport services for a fee. More initiatives will come with time, Jessen said.

To absorb the cost—which is less than one percent of the library’s overall budget— Library Foundation will subsidize the lost revenue. The foundation currently provides between five to 10 percent of the library’s budget. The foundation raised more than $300,000 last year, said Michael Morand, president of the foundation.

Maintaining the policy will require a careful balancing of the budget, said Shana Schneider, president of the NHFPL board. However, she believes that the new policy is necessary as the library is a vital institution in the city.

“It allows us to be one community. It is time to come back to your library,” she said. “This library is your library.”

Mayor Justin Elicker addresses the crowd

Mayor Justin Elicker praised the move to eliminate fines. In his transition report, he had highlighted the library system as a vital institution in the city of New Haven. He hopes that people who are struggling financially are empowered to return to the library, especially in the middle of the pandemic.

“This morning, I read a book to my 5-year-old daughter from the Ives Library,” he said. “These resources are wonderful for our community, and people from all walks of life deserve to have them.”

The elimination of fines comes amidst a tightened overall budget for the institution that the city voted on earlier this year. The tightened budget has allowed the library to evaluate what its role is in the city and better serve the community, said Jessen. The library cut back on some rarely used databases and became more strict on book orders.

“Libraries used to be these places with every book from A to Z,” he said. “Now we can think about what books are popular and in circulation and order those.”

The library staff is currently contacting people with outstanding fees to inform them that their fees have been eliminated, said Teen Librarian Meghan Currey, who has been running the organization’s young adult book club on Zoom since March. However, most of the contact information provided is no longer up to date. Currey encouraged people to reach out with suggestions and update their information.

Visit the New Haven Free Public Library's website for more information.