FEELING FINE-FREE AT ROCHESTER PUBLIC LIBRARY

By Erin Pagel

Dear Rochester Women Readers –

I should tell you that this article is biased. I love our Rochester Public Library. I serve as president of the library board and serve on the Rochester Public Library Foundation board. My family and I generally have dozens of items checked out at any given time. I love the events, the staff, the unexpected services and, of course, the books. We’ve paid more than I care to admit in overdue fines over the years. I am thrilled that the Rochester Public Library has removed fines for overdue materials and stepped a bit closer to reaching our goal of improving access for all. Following is a bit of information about the recent elimination of overdue fines and why it’s important for our community.

As of June 1, 2020, with a unanimous board vote, Rochester Public Library has wiped away all fines for overdue materials and will no longer charge fines on overdue items. This action helps to ensure that all people have access to the library, its staff and its materials, regardless of financial status. The change offers one less barrier for community members to learn, grow and celebrate community at Rochester Public Library.

Why Remove Fines

Our community is stronger and healthier when all community members can access programs, services, and materials they need to pursue their goals in education, career, family and life in general. Removing barriers to equitable access to services aligns with Rochester Public Library’s strategic plan, and social equity is one of Rochester’s Foundational Principles. 

Collecting fines has a discriminatory impact on the economically under-privileged, particularly members of racial and ethnic minorities. Eliminating overdue fines allows everyone in our community access to the library, regardless of personal financial challenges and invites people who can most benefit from the library back to the library. 

What about Responsibility?

Some might argue that fines encourage civic responsibility and that the threat of fines teaches borrowers to return materials in a timely manner so others can enjoy them. The board thoroughly discussed whether or not the library has a role in teaching responsibility and discipline, looking for data to prove or refute this stance. 

Though perhaps counterintuitive, research and experience from libraries that have eliminated fines shows that overdue fines have no impact on return rates and are costly to enforce. Fine management requires valuable staff time in applying, collecting and managing fines. Fines create a barrier in public relations, putting library staff in the role of ‘enforcer’ when their role is really to help patrons. 

Learning from Others

Many libraries across the country are eliminating overdue fines. Somewhat locally, Rochester Public Library joins the ranks of St. Paul, Duluth, Chicago and Pine Island who have all eliminated overdue fines since 2018. Many libraries, including St. Paul, report an increase in visits, library card registration and borrowed materials since going fine-free. Most report little variation in return rates; books and other materials come back to the library as they always have. 

Still, it’s the stories that resonate most. One woman, unable to check out a book due to pending fines from books returned overdue, when told of the move to eliminate fines, exclaimed, “I am so excited! Finally I can read at home again! I cannot wait to check out books again!”

By the Numbers

17: Percentage of Rochester Public Library patrons who reported feeling financial stress (pre COVID-19 crisis)

7.1: Percentage of persons in poverty, Olmsted County (2018)

1,970,910: Total library materials checked out, including physical and electronic media (2019)

472,652: Total visits to library and book mobile (2019)

$52,424.86: Overdue fines collected (2019)

1: Percent fines collected contributed to the total library budget (2019)

Resources

 

Erin Pagel is a freelance writer living in Rochester.