Fines are a Thing of the Past at Decatur Public Library

Decatur Public Library

Decatur Public Library (DPL) will be fine-free as of June 1, 2018. Library records indicate that this possibility has been considered and debated at least since the mid-1990s, but in early 2017 the idea really took off.

In 2017, DPL engaged the firm Library Strategies to guide the library in the process of developing a strategic plan. The first step was information gathering. The library conducted internal and external surveys (which had a huge response), held two focus groups, and a one-day retreat of various stakeholders. While there were a handful of themes that emerged in this process, one that stood out, across all demographic groups, was that overdue fines were a barrier to library use. Patrons who were more well-to-do, found the fines “annoying” and sometimes chose not to use the library in order to avoid them. Patrons who were of a lower socioeconomic bracket sometimes found themselves completely unable to pay their fines, and were therefore prevented from using the library by library policy.

Library fines accounted for less than 1% of the library’s revenues for the last several years. Administration forecast greater than 1% growth on other revenue lines, making the financial argument to continue fines untenable. Library administration talked with other fine-free libraries about the “how” of being fine-free and the results they had experienced. They all reported increased circulation and no problems with patrons returning materials. In fact, some reported that they had an improved rate of return. DPL will suspend library privileges anytime a patron has overdue materials, until the materials are renewed or returned in good condition. If the items are not returned within 30 days, the patron will be billed for the full cost of the materials. This bill will be waived once materials are returned in good condition, provided the materials have not been replaced.

Library administration decided to experiment with a fine-forgiveness month. During June of 2017, anyone with fines on their account could get all of those fines waived, regardless of amount, provided all materials had been returned in good condition. All the patron had to do was come to the library, check out materials and ask for the fine to be waived.

The response was overwhelming. DPL had experienced 21 straight months of declining circulation. In June there was a 1% increase in circulation and hundreds of patrons returning to the library after long absences (one year or more). More than one patron was moved literally to tears after having hundred dollar fines removed from their account and hence being allowed to use the library once again. The response prompted library administration to extend the fine-forgiveness for two more weeks in July. July’s circulation increased about 6%.

The library has seen increased circulation every month since then, some months as much as 14%. In February 2018, Children’s materials circulation rose an eye-popping 33%. Every indication is that the majority of patrons that the library recovered due to fine-forgiveness have remained library users, in fact, they are among our most loyal patrons. The library expects another increase in usage once fines are permanently eliminated in June.


What is changing?

Circulating materials in all formats are fine free effective June 1, 2018. The date will coincide with the kick-off of the annual Summer Reading Program. Decatur Public Library patrons will no longer be charged overdue fines!

Decatur Public Library cards will also no longer have an expiration date!

What is not changing?

Patrons will continue to be billed replacement fees for ALL materials that are not returned, are lost, or damaged.

We eliminated overdue fines on our library materials because we want to encourage our entire community to use the library, to explore library collections and become lifelong readers. We believe this new policy presents a good balance between reducing barriers to library services and instilling responsible behavior. We also know that young borrowers must often depend on others to bring them to the library and to monitor due dates.

There will still be an address check on library cards every 3 years.

General Questions

Doesn't the library need the overdue fine money?

Overdue fines made up only a small fraction of the library's budget (actually less than one percent). We have previously attempted to use overdue fines as an incentive to return materials, not as a punishment or to generate revenue.

What about fines currently on my account?

If your library card is blocked because of overdue fines or lost and damaged materials, we'd like to work with you! If you return overdue materials, we will work with you to waive the replacement charges (we really do just want the materials back). We are willing to waive overdue fines, so just come in and talk with us so you can use the library again.

Why is the difference between overdue fines and fees?

Overdue fines are added when materials are kept out past their due date. Fees for replacement costs are added when materials are lost or damaged.

Why did the Decatur Public Library eliminate overdue fines on overdue materials?

We discovered through recent strategic planning meetings with the community, that fines create a barrier that keeps our patrons from using our library and accessing the wealth of materials and ready resources available. The change in the overdue fine policy is being implemented as another way we can increase service to our community by encouraging those who might not regularly use the library to stop by and experience what we have to offer.

What if I'm on the hold list for an item, and it isn't returned?

By studying other libraries that have embraced this opportunity, we have discovered that patrons will continue to return library materials in a timely manner. We also offer email or text reminders to renew or return materials before they become overdue.

If there are no fines, will materials still have due dates?

Although there are no overdue fines, materials will still have the usual due dates and we expect patrons will return items to the library in that same timeframe as they did before. If an item is not returned within 30 days after its due date a replacement cost will be assessed.

What happens if my materials are overdue or if I forget to return items?

Customers who have overdue materials will have their library cards blocked, which stops them from checking out physical items until the overdue materials have been returned. If an item is not returned 30 days past its due date the customer is charged a replacement fee.

Can I have prior fines waived at another library?

You can pay prior overdue fines on your account at another library, however in order to have your prior overdue fines waived you must come into the Decatur Public Library to do so.

Can I have my fines waived on my card if it is registered at another library?

Decatur Public Library staff is only waiving overdue fines of Decatur Public Library patrons.

Can I renew materials that are currently overdue on my card?

Yes, as long as the item has not reached the bill period. You can renew Decatur Public Library items up to 1 time, other libraries have varying renewal periods.

Will I still receive reminders about returning materials?

A reminder email or text will be sent two days prior to an item being due, and reminder emails will be sent 10 and 20 days after materials are overdue.

When will this take effect?

Effective June 1, 2018