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What Happened When Denver Public Library Eliminated Overdue Fines?

One year ago, Denver Public Library stopped charging fines for overdue materials—and the move brought people back to the stacks.

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I have a distinct childhood memory of the admonishing look a librarian gave me while I handed over my precious allowance to pay a late fee. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t mean I haven’t received a few overdue notices as an adult. I’ve got good intentions: I want to finish reading before the due date. I mean to put the book in my bag to return it. And, when I finally do both of those things, I fully intend to swing by the library immediately instead of physically carrying the same book around for days as a weighty reminder of my dereliction of duty.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the multi-year fine featured in a Seinfeld episode, where Lieutenant Bookman chastises Jerry Seinfeld for keeping a New York Public Library (NYPL) book he checked out in 1971. (Side note: The NYPL, which is celebrating its quasquicentennial, released a delightful list of its most frequently checked out books of all time.)

Denver Public Library (DPL) has helpfully kept me on course over the years with automatic renewals and timely return reminders. Nonetheless, I was pretty excited when DPL announced it was doing away with fines on January 1, 2019.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who took notice. In addition to garnering a fair amount of press, DPL says the change, which has been in effect for a year, is bringing people back to the library. That’s because, in addition to ending fines, the library canceled most outstanding balances. In the past year, 35 percent of people who were impacted have returned to use library services. “We want welcoming spaces for all of Denver,” says Jennifer Hoffman, DPL’s manager of books and borrowing. “Going fine free really removed those barriers.”

The plan to erase fees took time to develop. In 2008, children’s materials became exempt from fines (senior materials were always fine free). More circulation changes were made in 2014 with a focus on improving access and removing barriers. The idea to eliminate fines was bounced around then, but it would take a few more years to become a reality through incremental changes (like those automatic renewals I like so much). The library also held amnesty days to wipe library fines. As a result, fine revenue declined—$110,339 was collected in 2018—and the library worked with the city to eliminate fines altogether.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen is improvement in the overall atmosphere and tone,” Hoffman says of the change. “[There’s] less hesitancy or worry about fines, and more of a tendency to engage.” But patrons can’t keep a book out indefinitely; your borrowing status stalls out after two weeks if you don’t return an overdue book. The library helps you avoid that by sending out reminders with friendly messages, such as “You have the power to be a library hero!” A lighthearted tone that bears no resemblance to that memory from my childhood or Seinfeld’s Lieutenant Bookman. What a change.

(Read more: “How Denver Public Library is Improving Services for Its Most Disadvantaged Patrons”)

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