The Albany Public Library is eliminating late fines for books and other items

Albany Public Library Washington Ave exterior


The Albany Public Library announced today that it's eliminating late fines for books, DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks starting January 1.

It's also waiving previously racked-up late fees for these types of items.

But if there aren't fines, what's going to prompt people to bring books back on time?

Well, you might be surprised about how that works now.

"We recognized that fines really don't get our items back and they create a barrier," said Albany Public Library executive director Scott Jarzombek Monday afternoon over the phone. "On the surface it seems like it makes sense, but in reality we don't see a huge return on items when there are fines on the card."

The APL currently has about 65,000 cardholders. Almost one quarter of them have a late fine on their account. The library's current policy is that people are stopped from taking out new materials when they reach $10 in fines.

Jarzombek said the library system has been studying this issue, talking it over with the library board for many months. And APL already took a step in this direction when it went fine-free for kids cards four years ago.

"It's been extremely successful," Jarzombek said of the "MyCard" for kids and teens. "And when we looked at the numbers we had more items returned -- the ratio was better than for regular cards."

Pine Hills library books

APL's move is part of a broader trend. There's been an ongoing discussion in library circles in recent years about what role fines play for libraries and whether they really do prompt people to bring back books on time.

Many systems have decided fines are ultimately working against their larger missions, keeping many patrons (and potential patrons) from accessing materials. So they've eliminated the fees. Nashville, Salt Lake City, and Columbus are among the large systems that have done so.

Locally, the Brunswick Community Library went fine free this past April. And Scott Jarzombek said APL has heard from Brunswick that circulation has been up about 10 percent since then.

"The library is about the community sharing things and I think people who use the library get that. There's more of a shame around fines than anything else," he said, noting that throughout his career he's heard from people who are embarrassed by having fines on their card -- and, as a result, stop coming in. "I don't think we're in the business of shaming."

Albany Public Library Pine Hills exterior

The Albany Public Library system took in about $65,000 in late fines last year, according to Jarzombek. That's less than one percent of the library's budget. He said APL will be replacing that with revenue from other initiatives such as Navigator transit card sales, renting out space to CDTA's bike share, and other partner programs. He said that revenue is more reliable than fines, which have been trending downward for years.

APL is not completely eliminating fines. Late return of special collections and interlibrary loan items will still incur fines. And APL will be tightening its rules for the late-return of high-demand items. So if you keep a popular book or DVD past the return date, you'll be prevented from taking out other items until you return it.

And, as is already the case, items marked lost or unreturned will continue to result in the cardholder being billed and borrowing privileges suspended until the items are returned or paid for.

Jarzombek said he'd been agnostic about eliminating late fines, but was ultimately swayed by the evidence and experience of other systems.

"We have fines now and people don't bring books back," he said. "Our number one mission is to improve literacy across the city and this is something that's going to help us do that. I'd rather get books into people's hands."


Earlier: Libraries are about books. And the internet. And technological change. And community


I think this is a great idea but I would have liked to have seen a "food for fines" effort and then a few months later - out with the fines. Food to be distributed to local food pantries or Regional Food bank.

I’m a huge library consumer and regularly accrrue fines but I’m fortunate enough that I can shrug them off and pay them (or renew the items on my smart phone, which stops the fine from adding up). But I applaud this initiative because I’ll never forget the time I went to return a book and the kid in front of me had $35 in library fines and was prevented from any further borrowing. I would have paid it for him but I had literally walked from my house with only my book to return and didn’t have my wallet with me. I hope that kid returns!

Just keep increasing the (supposed one time) library tax....I’d be happy to pick up the bills for people that can’t return something that they “borrowed”.......right is wrong war is peace up is down.....things are getting more crazy by the hour!

Jarzombek for the win!

Ok... So ... I want a book but someone else has taken it out ... They can keep it forever ... Whatever ... Just more of this enabling deviant behavior...

Heaven forbid a person cannot be responsible for their debt..... 5 cents a day for being overdue. What an irresponsible way for those who don't pay this mere pittance should their book becomes overdue. shame on the shaming aspect of this conversation.

To clarify: if you've lost a book, you still have to pay for it.

But if you're a couple days late on a regular item because you couldn't get enough (or get it back on time), you're alllll good :) Great job APL!

We do want our books back so everyone can enjoy them! People can't keep APL books forever. If they don't return an item, it will be listed as lost/unreturned. The person will be billed for that book and have borrowing privileges suspended until it is returned.

BS, if you give me your address I'll gladly mail you three dollars and forty-nine cents to cover your share of the library tax next year.

... anyway, I think this is lovely. When I was a little kid I lost a ragged old library book for a while, and was so ashamed about returning it months and months late and having to pay a fine that I hid the book in my room and never went back to that library! Fines always strike me as a deterrent to returning books, because you only have to pay when you do the responsible thing and bring the book back. Hopefully, this will encourage people to return books that they've been keeping because they're too embarrassed or can't afford to pay the fine.

Caitlin- that’s exactly what the research shows as well! Late fines are not a good incentive to return books and often act as a barrier to borrowing. Libraries that have removed fines have seen increased circulation with lots of new and returning borrowers. We hope to see all the people with books hiding below their beds back in the library in January, heads held high.

I must be paying the wrong library’s system taxes..Caitlin give me your address and I will forward my tax bill to you to pay it for me happily! Not sure where you are pulling $3.49 from???? PS let’s face it....and I am a huge proponent of education.....libraries are no longer needed with online content....going the way of brick and mortar shopping.....they have become little more than glorified social services centers...and that’s from a kid who lived his life in a library throughout high school, college and grad school. I find an over 9 million dollar budget a bit high for a city of 100,000 people and a 40-50% high school drop out rate.

@BS -- I physically go to one of the branch libraries in Albany just about every week and it's always busy with people. I check out books, audiobooks, museum passes, go to lectures, use the printer (I don't own one). The library tax is the only tax I am more than happy to pay.

@Brainiac - If you read All Over Albany's article, you will see that the library has experienced kids' items being returned at a higher rate once the eliminated fines. So this policy may very well lead to there being a better chance of your item being on the shelf, rather than listed as "Lost" in the catalog.

Many, many libraries in other parts of the country are fine free. Most found that implementing this policy was at least income neutral, and many have found that it slightly improves finances. When the cost of calculating, collecting, and administering fines plus the cost of greater non-returns are factored in, many libraries spend more on fines than they collect. Plus fines discourage people from using the library.

This policy is a win for everyone, and I am so happy to see it make its way to Albany.

I think this is a great idea; it's based on experience of other libraries. Libraries remain one of the great democratic ideas (remember Andrew Carnegie); and in this era of increasing internet use which can be a huge barrier for low-income people, libraries are the "highway of knowledge" (along with books)

Aimee Allaud

The library is absolutely one of our family's favorite places to be! From reading materials to movies to museum passes--it has it all! We go at least once a week and usually more. I will be interested to see how the fine free move will go and appreciate that our libraries are open to trying it! P.S. my teenager doesn't care to have a smartphone but can't live without her books!

@susan just wait until you want a book and someone else has it. As I said this is defining deviancy downward, they are legalizing pot, giving corrupt legislatures pay raises, raising your taxes when it should include garbage fees , giving social promotions in our schools that have a less than a 50% graduation rate, nothing matters anymore... give everyone a reward for just existing. ... This part of the dismal tide and you don't even see it. It's like the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot. ... It doesn't even know it's in trouble and then it's dead.

I'd be interested to see the actual data that drove this decision, because it seems counter-intuitive. I'm not a huge fan of changes like this that intuitively encourage poor decision making or less responsibility. Don't want late fees? Return your books on time. Don't want to be punished for doing something? Don't do it. It really is that simple, full stop.

Ra -
This article links to some good high quality research on the topic:

Some public libraries across the United States are changing their policies and seeing little difference in their circulation statistics and, more importantly, improving the library experience of community members. In Pyatetsky's (2015) opinion piece "The End of Overdue Fines?" she suggested the act of eliminating
library fines is becoming more widespread and accepted. Algonquin Public Library (Illinois) removed fines; at the one year anniversary of the policy change, they saw no negative effects. Witnessing this, Vernon Public Libraries in the northwest Chicago suburbs followed suit (Pyatetsky, para. 2, 2015). After determining that charging fines was costing more than the revenue it brought in, Gleason Public Library (Illinois) stopped charging fines and saw no significant difference in the amount of time people were keeping materials (West, 2012). The library director, Angela Mollet, said having a "fine-free" policy was in keeping with the library's mission: "What role do fines play in a library? I want to encourage people of all ages to read, to discover, to be curious, and it doesn't make sense to put up any barriers that might prevent that" (West, 2012, 17 para. 29). The staff and trustees at Gleason Public Library placed emphasis on removing obstacles to accessing materials, especially for children.

Basically: Late fines aren’t a good incentive to return books, and deter people from borrowing in the first place. APL wants to ensure that everyone has access to the library, and wants toencourage people to come back to the library and borrow more materials. Inability to pay fines causes patrons to stop coming to the library and use APL's resources.

While we are at it why do we pay confiscatory late interest when our taxes are paid late! I don’t want to! I think it would help me to pay taxes if I knew I wouldn’t be fined for my being late.....the whole act makes me nervous and gives me an upset stomach.....clearly this trigger against my health should be abolished!!!

@Jenna that's extremely interesting, thanks to the links and the citations! I'm still pretty amazed because common sense would seem to point in the opposite direction, but at least now I can understand where this is coming from.

@Brainiac - I know it seems counterintuitive, but the book I want is MORE likely to be available in a fine free library. For whatever psychological reason, when people rack up fines, they are more likely to just not return the book at all. I worked at a library without fines, and was skeptical at first, but then was amazed at how much better it was. I became a quick convert.

Jenna above has linked to some great resources above on the topic, but if you want more, just let us know. We librarians love to find relevant research!

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For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

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