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Chicago Public Libraries’ Fine-Free Policy Found Effective After Two Years

Maia Luem | The PhoenixChicago Public Libraries followed policies from San Diego, Columbus, Ohio and Baltimore.

It’s been two years since Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Chicago Public Libraries (CPL) would no longer have late fees. This change gave Chicagoans more access to much-needed resources and increased library patrons and materials returned.

Previously, Chicago Public Libraries collected between $800,000 and $900,000 from library patrons who returned materials late or not at all, which accounted for 0.7% of the entire budget, according to the library press release in which Lightfoot announced the end of fines.

Maia Luem | The Phoenix Chicago Public Libraries followed other public libraries and eliminated fines in October 2019.

 Taking away the fine system has actually increased library attendance. After eliminating fines Chicago libraries saw a 7% increase in the number of books checked out, according to the press release.

Patrons, who for years had late fines and expired cards, once again returned to the library, according to the press release. Additionally, libraries saw an influx in late materials getting returned — including a book that had been missing for upwards of 80 years. 

Mary Ghikas, American Library Association executive director, said she “applauds” Lightfoot’s decision to eliminate these barriers to library access by going fine-free. 

“Research from other fine-free systems has indicated that fines do not increase return rates, and further that the cost of collecting and maintaining overdue fees often outweighs the revenue generated by them,” the press release said. 

Chicago libraries gathered research from other libraries that went fine free, such as San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, and Baltimore.

Leslie Owen | The Phoenix

Additionally, CPL conducted a short-term fine amnesty experiment in 2016 in which they saw a return of over $800,000 in library materials. 

It was also found that some people wouldn’t use the library at all for fear of accumulating fines they would not be able to pay, according to the library press release. 

Ultimately, eliminating fines allows for libraries to adhere to their ultimate goal — having a “free, equal and equitable access to information in all its forms,” Ghika said in the press release.

Dr. Christine George, a Loyola Center for Urban Research and Learning associate research professor, said she’s found in her research that, in general, a fine or fee disproportionately affects low income individuals. 

“I think that one of the problems is that when you look at fees, they become a hidden tax system and they become a source of income, and that’s the real problem,” George said.

Leslie Owen | The Phoenix

This is especially problematic for communities that rely on the library for a number of services, including free Wi-Fi, computer and printer access, reading and media materials. When they can’t afford to pay their fines, it creates a deeper barrier to access. 

“The fees were supposed to motivate people to return books, and they didn’t work,” George said. “All they did was create systems where people had limited access.”

George said she thinks this is a step in the right direction for the community.

“To me, the library system is one of the most democratic systems in the city,” George said. “And to the extent that there’s no fees and fines associated with it, it just makes it more accessible. I think it’s very admirable that the Chicago library figured this out and hopefully … this model is communicated through various library networks.”

Chicago, which has the second largest public library system in the country, has led other library systems to follow suit. Cities such as St. Louis implemented a fine free system shortly after Chicago’s decision. Most recently, New York City – which has the largest public library system – announced its decision to eliminate fines Oct. 5.

Liam Melville, a Loyola senior studying Greek, got his Chicago library card about a year ago and has never paid Chicago library fines.

“If you’re making most of your money off of library fines, you’re doing something wrong,” Melville, 22, said. “I think the intention of the library fine wasn’t to make money but more so to be like, ‘return your books.’”

Melville said that largely, he thinks Chicago eliminating the fine system was good. Additionally, he doesn’t think it stops people from returning library materials — he said he feels there’s a “social obligation” people have to return their materials so others can use them.

“It’s definitely removed the fear from the library fine,” Melville said. “Generally, I think everything out of canceling fines is a positive experience.”

Harper Stewart, an English major at Loyola, also frequents the Chicago public libraries. Stewart said she learned Chicago was fine-free this summer after she forgot to return a book and it automatically renewed. She said she’s always loved libraries — especially the Harold Washington branch in the South Loop.

“I think libraries are a really interesting intersection of reading, academics and learning but also community involvement and engagement,” Stewart, 20, said. “It’s kind of like combining a bookstore with a non-for-profit. Truly it’s such a cool community resource that doesn’t really have a set agenda besides enriching and engaging citizens.” 

Stewart said she loves the new system and doesn’t think there’s a negative side to eliminating fines. Though, she said there’s a larger issue at play of libraries being underfunded, although she feels this should be addressed by looking at government spending – not “the little man” who’s not paying fines.

“The minimal income you might have gotten from the fines, you shouldn’t have been relying on anyways because it’s predatory,” Melville said.

Students looking to join the Chicago Public Libraries only need to bring their state ID and a piece of mail proving Chicago residency if their ID is from out of state to get a library card.

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