Libraries Connected today presents the findings of its March 2022 survey around library fines and publishes its library fine survey summary report.
Library fines are a hot topic in libraries at present, with a growing global movement to remove all fines for overdue books. Libraries have traditionally charged fines to encourage people to return books and to raise money for the library budget. In recent years libraries have been questioning whether fines are counter-productive: do they put off people from using the library, and do they have an unfair impact on those with low incomes – who are the very groups libraries most want to support? However, removing fines isn’t a simple matter as libraries may be left with a budget gap or fear lenders may hang onto their books forever.
As a membership body we are always keen to respond to the ambitions of our members, so we decided to launch a survey to explore the topic of fines in more detail and especially to find out how some libraries have been able to remove fines and what the impacts have been on their budgets and operations. We hoped to uncover useful evidence to help more libraries explore whether they should go fines free and if so, how best to do so.
In March 2022 we surveyed our members and had 61 responses (that is just over a third of the 176 library services in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Crown Dependencies). We found that:
- The majority of library services are still charging people for returning items after the due date. Only 16 of the 61 told us they had removed library fines, with 8 of these having done so in the past 2 years.
- Around 33% of library services told us they were considering removing library fines and another 40% said they may consider it.
- 18% of library services that had removed fines had seen an increase in membership and 13% had seen in an increase in overall loans. However the majority had seen no change or were unsure as the service restrictions brought about by COVID-19 had made it very difficult to measure the impact.
- 40% of libraries that had removed library fines had seen an increase in adults using the library, 30% had seen an increase in families and people from disadvantaged areas, and 20% had seen an increase in 5 – 16-year-olds.
The main barriers they identified to removing library fines were:
- Loss of income, which couldn’t be easily offset by savings or new funding streams.
- Customers not returning or not renewing books causing stock circulation problems and a reduction in issues for new books.
- Difficulty in justifying removing fines when the council had a funding gap and services were being reduced.
- A lack of evidence showing the benefits making it hard to argue the case.
- The impact on community managed libraries who rely on the income they get from overdue charges.
The perceived benefits to removing library fines were:
- Removal of the stigma of overdue books.
- Helping to tackle the poverty agenda.
- Incrasing library use (particularly by people from deprived areas and those with lower incomes).
- Recovering the physical library offer post pandemic.
- Encouraging lapsed users to return to the library.
- Reducing conflict arising from fines that frontline staff had to manage.
- Reducing costs with the possibility of a cashless system.
- Bringing the physical offer in line with the digital. There are no fines on e-content so people without digital access or skills are fined while those with access and skills aren’t.
- Providing a good news story.
We also ran a workshop with our Advisory Committee, which is made up of Heads of Service and Senior Library Managers who lead our Universal Library Offers and Chair our regional networks and asked them what the pros and cons of library fines are. Here are the word clouds that emerged.
Library leaders who were considering removing library fines told us:
“It is preventing low-income families from using our service. We want to encourage use of our service and remove this as a potential barrier.
“Library fines unfairly target the most economically deprived parts of our community. Currently we have successfully had funding to delay re-instated the fine suspension in Wales as part of Covid measures. From April 22 to March 23 the council's Covid economic recovery budget will offset charging of fines for another year. Currently the argument locally is who will cover the income shortfall from charging fines. It is not that we should not charge them.”
A library leader that isn’t considering removing library fines told us,
“We cannot afford to lose this income. We are considering reviewing our membership categories to ensure they provide ease of use and support in the right areas in the community.”
A library leader who may consider removing library fines told us,
“If I lost this income, I would be expected to find it in other ways - for example ticketing events and I would rather maintain free events so all can benefit."