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New York City's public libraries are doing away with late fees forever!

NYC’s systems represent the largest municipality to eliminate fines.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

New York's public library systems are closing the books on late fees.

As of this week, the New York, Queens and Brooklyn Public Libraries have officially done away with late fines in order to make sure New Yorkers have free and open access to knowledge.

RECOMMENDED: You can now download over 300,000 books from the NYPL for free

Typically, library cards were blocked from borrowing if they had $15 or more in fines, but that's no longer the case. The libraries have also cleared all prior late fines so everyone is on equal footing to start. Each system will do things a little differently but overall, if a New Yorker loses material, they'll have to pay replacement fees (if a book is overdue by about a month, it will be considered lost). If they're returned, there won't be any fees. 

The only way cards will be blocked from borrowing additional physical materials if they've accrued replacement fees (which will differ per system). That being said, even if a card is blocked, the user can still access computers, e-books, and other digital services.

"For far too long, late fines have generated fear and anxiety among those who can least afford to pay, preventing them from opening library accounts, checking out books, or even coming through our doors," said Queens Public Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott. "I vividly remember as a child having late fines on my card and hesitating about going to the library when I needed it. Until today, countless New Yorkers have been denied the opportunity to share in the great promise of public libraries—that anyone, no matter their circumstances, can have free access to sources of learning and ideas that will help them find success and joy in their lives. Late fines tell people they do not belong, and that shutting them out is simply the cost of doing business. This is not only unacceptable but also totally inconsistent with our mission. We are thrilled to be able to make it possible for even more people to take part in everything we have to offer."

It's worth noting that in the NYPL system, branches in high-need communities (with median household income below $50,000) have six times the number of blocked patrons as others. In fact, the 10 branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards are all in high-need communities, and each have one in five cardholders blocked.

In the Queens Public Library system, the communities with the highest number of blocked cards—Corona, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, and Elmhurst—all have median incomes well below the borough average. At the Brooklyn Public Library, the branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards are in neighborhoods where more than 20% of households live below the poverty level and most have an average median household income under $50,000.

About 30% of blocked accounts belong to children and teens in NYPL and in Queens, it's 65%. In 2017, when a full citywide assessment was done of blocked cards, 80% of blocked youth cards were located in low-income communities.

A whopping 400,000 New Yorkers have more than $15 in library fines across the city right now, with more than half in high-need communities.

"This announcement is another major step towards making our public libraries, the heart of so many communities, accessible to all," said Mayor Bill de Blasio. "Eliminating fines will let us serve even more New Yorkers, allowing them to enjoy all of the resources and programs that public libraries offer to grow and succeed."

NYC is the latest U.S. city to end fines—San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Seattle, and Dallas have all gone fine-free. Combined, New York City’s systems represent the largest municipality to eliminate fines.

The Urban Libraries Council says that the response across the nation has been "overwhelmingly positive." The San Francisco Public Library reported a 53% increase in the number of items with fines that were returned post-fine elimination (September-November 2019) compared to the year before.

Chicago Public Library reported that in the year following their fine-free announcement in 2019, 11,000 users who had at least $10 in outstanding fines renewed or replaced their library cards, returning to the system, and that about 1,650 long-overdue books were returned in each of the five months after fines were eliminated: an 83% increase in returns.

And the San Diego Public Library system, which went fine-free in 2018, reported an 8% increase in library card sign-ups, a 4% increase in circulation, and no increase in lost items (the number remained at about 2%). Director Misty Jones noted that many children and teens got their first library cards without the fear of fines, and many formerly blocked patrons came back. "It was the best thing we could have possibly done," she said.

"Some might say fines teach accountability and ethics. I disagree," said New York Public Library President Anthony W. Marx. "We can teach New Yorkers to be responsible and return their items so others can use them without a financial burden. No one can learn responsibility at the Library if they can’t use the library. Considering the size of the three systems, it has taken time, thoughtful discussion, and careful analysis to take this important step towards a more equitable library system. The time is now. We hope to see all New Yorkers at one of our branches soon."

To celebrating dropping fines, all three systems are holding a week of giveaways and special programs at all branch locations beginning on Monday, October 18.

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