Chicago libraries see 240% surge in returned books after eliminating late fees

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Last month, the Chicago Public Library system became the largest in the country to eliminate late fees thanks to Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot.

While the move, which was implemented October 1, was intended to "remove unfair barriers to basic library access, especially for youth and low-income patrons," it had another positive outcome. Since the removal of overdue fees, along with the elimination of any outstanding charges on people's accounts, libraries across the city saw a surge in the return of overdue books over the last several weeks.

"The amount of books returned has increased by 240 percent…We're very, very happy to have that. … Those books have a value and cost money to buy. We want those assets back. We also want the patron to come back," Library Commissioner Andrea Telli said at a City Council budget hearing, the Chicago-Sun Times reports.

According to a press release from Lightfoot, late fees rarely have the impact they're intended to. "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."


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Library spokesman Patrick Molloy confirmed that data, telling the Chicago Tribune when the fines get too big, people simply choose to not return to the library, and the missing items are never returned, either.

"Fines truthfully haven't been a revenue stream and weren't designed to be a revenue stream. It was supposed to be an incentive to get the materials back, and the research shows that's just not the case."

Library patrons are of course still responsible for returning books when they're done with them, or they'll otherwise be required to replace or pay for the missing items. Materials checked out of the library will automatically be renewed up to fifteen times if there are no holds on them. However, if the item is still missing one week after the last due date, it will be marked as lost and the person's account will be charged. But if the book gets returned, the charge will be cleared.

"Like too many Chicagoans, I know what it is like to grow up in financially-challenging circumstances and understand what it is like to be just one bill or one mistake away from crushing debt," said Lightfoot. "The bold reforms we're taking to make the Chicago Public Library system fine-free and forgive City Sticker debt will end the regressive practices disproportionately impacting those who can least afford it, ensure every Chicagoan can utilize our city's services and resources, and eliminate the cycles of debt and generational poverty because of a few mistakes."

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A large amount of people most affected by the fees were children. According to library data, 20% of suspended library cards belong to children younger than 14, the Tribune reports.

Hopefully this new system will encourage people, especially youth and those from lower-income households, to start taking advantage of their local library again without the burden of fees that can't be paid.

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