The Free Library Just Decided to Ditch Late Fees for Good

The new policy, to be implemented sometime next year, is meant to reduce barriers to using the library — and a lot of people are breathing a little sigh of relief.

Photo by J. Smith for Visit Philadelphia

After two years of debate, the board of trustees of the Free Library of Philadelphia voted on Wednesday to eliminate fines on overdue materials.

The vote now kicks off an internal process “of amending the policies that go into [this decision] and implementing staff training and public relations around it,” Free Library president and director Siobhan Reardon said in a phone interview. While the change isn’t likely to go into effect in the near future, Reardon said she expects members will see late fees disappear by the end of 2020.

“I’m avoiding giving any kind of date because I don’t want to miss a target,” Reardon said. “I want to be very careful about the process, because one mistake in this kind of thing could be unfortunate.”

When the change is implemented, all debts due to overdue fines will be wiped. What won’t change is that if you have any overdue books, you won’t be able to check out new materials unless you return them — or replace them, if they’re lost, by either paying for the cost of the book or bringing in a copy of the same one. But at least you won’t have to pay late fees! (Thank goodness for me — and probably a lot of other people.)

Since 2013, the library has offered fine-free library cards to children 12 years and younger. Wednesday’s vote to waive late fees altogether is about “eliminating barriers,” Reardon said.

“We wanted to take down any kind of barrier from anybody who felt the library was not a place for them,” Reardon said. “There’s also quite a number of objects that are out with overdue fines on them. We want those materials back. The sooner we get them, the sooner we’re able to put them back out in circulation.”

In October, City Council passed a non-binding resolution calling for a committee to explore eliminating overdue book fines. The resolution was largely symbolic, as the authority to discontinue overdue fines lies with the library’s board of trustees. But Reardon said the encouragement factored into the board’s decision.

The move isn’t expected to put much of a dent in the public library’s operating funds, which come mostly from the city and the state. The library collects about $400,000 annually from fines, according to the recently passed City Council resolution, which represents less than 1 percent of its $45.7 million budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

Libraries across the country are eliminating overdue book fees. A report published in January by the Financial Justice Project and the San Francisco Public Library found that collecting overdue book fines disproportionately affects lower-income and immigrant communities and drains the time and energy of library staff. Plus, the analysis found that even without overdue fines, libraries have continued to experience “timely returns and preserve the integrity of their collections.”

The decision in Philly comes just about a week after the Free Library launched its “Experience Pass” program, which grants you free entry to local museums, historical sites and educational institutions (and even the Mayor’s Box at the Wells Fargo Center). With that, the elimination of late fees and other ongoing perks, it seems like a better time than ever to sign up for a library card.