Going fine-free can pay off—just ask Houston (Texas) Public Library (HPL).
In January, Houston City Council voted to eliminate fines at HPL to encourage residents to use the library after seeing a decline in users. HPL held an amnesty period from January 18 to February 17 to allow users to return overdue books and materials and start over with a clean account. The results were astonishing: 3,098 customers had their overdue fines wiped during the amnesty period and returned 21,245 items—$425,000 worth of books and other materials. HPL cleared patron accounts with balances as high as $1,000 and even received three books checked out in 1992. Amazing!
Julie Mintzer, deputy assistant director of HPL, told Houston Public Media that many patrons were surprised to learn that their fines had been removed from their accounts.
"A lot of people didn't believe it, they were so thrilled," Mintzer said. "Some people accrued fines on their accounts for different reasons, whether it be a family member who checked items out, whether they have lost things during a storm or other natural disasters—so they were shocked."
Mintzer said eliminating the fines has led to an increase in patron visits to HPL: 850 customers who returned materials during the amnesty period are actively using the library again.
"What we realized … is that, when you can take away that financial barrier, more people will come and utilize the resources," she said. "For the folks who had their accounts blocked, and they couldn't check out items—once their accounts were cleared, they're coming back to the library and they're coming back strong, and we're thrilled.”
To fine or not to fine
Libraries across the country are eliminating fines for overdue materials, but it is a controversial topic nonetheless. Some libraries have halted the practice, citing concerns that fines keep patrons away, while others have kept them in place as needed revenue streams. Some libraries also use fines to teach personal responsibility, while others consider that lesson outside the realm of librarianship.
American Libraries has a wealth of information on the library-fine debate, from point-counterpoint discussions to round-table conversations to profiles of libraries that have gone fine-free. Explore it all here.
Photo by Element5 Digital.