The idea came out of a discussion during a fellowship program that brought together librarians from across the county, according to CLP library services manager Marta Honores. She says the Fine Free program is being tested as a pilot, "not to test out whether or not we wanted to go fine free, but to understand what impact it's going to make so that we can be really intentional about the process."
The period of evaluation will last three to six months before CLP, and the rest of the libraries, decide on how to proceed with the rest of the branches. Under the CLP's Fine Free program, any materials that are either checked out from or returned to Allegheny, Knoxville, and East Liberty branches will not accrue fines.
"Our goal is to create a more equitable and welcoming environment for our customers and we know that for many people, fines are a barrier," says Honores. "Whether you can afford [fines] or not, it's just that extra piece of work that you have."
Eliminating fines is a growing trend in library culture, upending a practice that some librarians and patrons see as outdated. Honores says that patrons' behavior does not change when they have fines; they either return a book on time or they don't. Research has shown that there's not a major difference in overdue rates between libraries with fines and libraries without. In many cases, fines discourage patrons from returning to the library.
A map created by the Urban Libraries Council shows libraries in dozens of cities, from San Francisco to Fargo, North Dakota, that have either completely or partially eliminated fines (some have eliminated fines only for children/teens). In September, Chicago became the largest city to eliminate fines in its libraries. By the end of October, the library had already seen a 240% increase in materials returned to the library, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Eliminating fines would also mean eliminating the revenue generated from fines, which Honores says makes up less than 1% of CLP's annual operating budget. While it's still a significant amount of money, Honores says that there are several factors that make the library question the value of fines, including the amount of time staff spends processing the fees and the barrier it creates with patrons. Plus, fine revenue is on the decline with the rise of e-books, which don't accrue fines.
The current CLP fine policy, outside of the three libraries without fines, is a late fee of 30 cents per day on an overdue item (20 cents for children's items). Some specialized materials have a fee of $1 per day. Patrons can continue to check out materials until their accrued fines reach $10.
While the Fine Free pilot is still new, Honores says they've already seen a significant increase in patrons actively using their library cards.
"We believe public libraries should be free to the people and eliminating fines is one way that we are living up to that," says Honores. "We will always choose keeping customers over getting our books back."