By Nick Parker
Taking the lead from institutions around the country, the Chapel Hill Public Library kicked off July by moving to a completely fine-free model. The library will no longer assess late fees or fines for overdue books or other materials.
“This is something we’d been thinking about and looking at for the last three or four years,” said Susan Brown, the library director. “In part because of our own thinking and our prioritization of increasing access and removing barriers to our resources, and in part because of this national trend.”
Hundreds of libraries across the country have already made the switch, according to an interactive map released by the Urban Library Council. Wake County recently went fine-free earlier in the year, and Durham’s library has plans to do the same in the near future.
Declining revenues from late fees, as well as research that suggests library fines disproportionally target low-income communities, were the major factors behind the library’s new policy.
“Fine revenue has been trending downwards for a number of years,” said Brown, “ [and] when you look at the data on fines there is a clear equity issue. They affect people on one end of the socio-economic spectrum more than others.”
Tiffany Allen, chair of the Library Advisory Board that brought the petition to go fine-free before the Chapel Hill Town Council in October 2019, echoed that thinking. “We were looking at this for a little while as it relates to the town’s commitment to social equity,” Allen said.
Data presented by the American Library Association, as well as the Public Library Association, suggested that fines could ultimately do more harm than good, and that in some cases they could threaten social equity. The Library Advisory Board, which has previously worked to expand public transit to the Chapel Hill Public Library and to secure funding for a more diverse library collection, saw an opportunity for positive change.
The petition had widespread backing from council members, who voted unanimously to support the new fine-free model.
“Basically, the data showed that when you do this you don’t get more late books, and that you’re actually helping people of lower wealth use the library without penalizing them,” said mayor pro tem and councilman Michael Parker. “Not only [do fines] have an economic effect, [they] have an effect of barring folks who couldn’t use the library when they might need to.”
Fellow council member Allan Buansi also noted that access to the library was one of the major factors in eliminating fines.
“When we got that petition I was more than pleased because one of our town’s biggest values is equity,” Buansi said. “These fines were having a disproportionate effect on working class and poor people. That was certainly the deciding factor for me.”
While fines did generate revenue, they accounted for less than 1 percent of the library’s total budget, according to Brown. “We were projecting we’d take in $30,000 in fines,” she said, “and we were projecting that in the next five years those revenues would continue to go down.”
The decision to go fine-free, however, does not mean there will be no consequences for failing to return library books. Bills will still continue to be sent out when material goes missing, and people who fail to return overdue books can have their library accounts blocked.
In the end, said Parker, the decision to remove fines “made a lot of sense, and it wasn’t going to cost the town much money. It was going to maintain access, if not improve access, for folks who use our library. It was just the right thing to do.”