Daily fines for overdue items at Seattle libraries were officially eliminated in January 2020, just months before COVID-19 forced libraries and other public spaces to shut their doors.
Considering the uncertainties and heightened stress brought on by the pandemic, Bo Kinney is glad the policy change at the Seattle Public Library system has given librarygoers some “peace of mind.”
The change followed the approval of a $219 million Seattle library levy, which voters overwhelmingly passed in August 2019. The goal, said Kinney, SPL’s circulation services manager, was to make libraries more equitable and to reduce barriers.
Now, rather than racking up daily late fees, members who don’t return materials within 31 days of a due date have their accounts suspended until the items are returned. SPL extended the window from 14 days during the pandemic, though that will likely change as branches fully reopen, according to SPL.
The library system also charges replacement fees for any lost or damaged items.
“It’s important for people to understand that ‘no fines’ doesn’t mean ‘no responsibility,'” Kinney said.
While the number of active SPL cardholders has dipped since March 2019, from 266,086 to 227,791, as of March 2022, SPL expects the number to climb back up as branches fully reopen. Patrons in February this year borrowed 2,051,396 items across all branches — similar to the number of items borrowed in February 2019, according to library data.
While pandemic disruptions have made it difficult to fully evaluate the policy change, Kinney says there have been several positive results.
Long overdue or lost items have decreased significantly — by about 38%, he said. And so far in 2022, library items are returned, on average, within six days of due dates, similar to when late fines were in place, he said.
After the policy change, the number of people with blocked accounts due to overdue items went from 10% to 5%.
“The vast majority of people do return their items on time,” Kinney said, adding that unpredictable events may prevent some people from returning items on time and lead them to stop going to the library altogether if too much time passes.
Return rates for books and other items, as of March, are also similar to 2019 rates. On average, 7% of items were overdue during the first months of 2022, which was about the same as before the policy went into effect, said SPL spokesperson Laura Gentry.
SPL had been considering the change since 2016. Several cities across the U.S. have reported a rise in borrowers and a decline in overdue items after adopting a no-late fee policy.
“For a long time libraries believed that overdue fines were a good way to encourage people to return items,” Kinney said.
Fines are burdensome to low-income families in particular, Kinney said. A main driver for eliminating late fines was to remove any financial barriers preventing people from using library services, he said.
But it’s still too early to properly assess how the removal of late fines has affected the use of library services in low-income neighborhoods, said Kinney, who said those trends are being monitored.
It may seem like a late fee on a book or two is no big deal, he said, but fines can severely affect families that check out several books at a time for their children, who then may find themselves unable to return them on time for one reason or another.
Being able to reassure people they’re OK to return books without a punitive policy or letting them know there’s no need for them to feel shame helps transform a negative experience into a positive one, Kinney said.