ITHACA, N.Y. — The Tompkins County Public Library is now a fine-free library.

As a way to make sure people truly have free access to books, TCPL has done away with fines on late items. The initiative quietly rolled out Jan. 14.

“What it really is is a movement,” Library Director Annette Birdsall said. “It’s libraries recognizing that this is a social equity issue, that fines have become a privilege and they — not only do they not work — they actually encourage people to keep materials longer if they can afford it. If you can afford it, you pay your fines, you don’t feel guilty and you support the library. We love people to support the library. We don’t love that it was a privilege and that people who couldn’t afford fines stopped using the library altogether.”

Birdsall said though fines were in place to encourage the return of materials, they became a barrier to access. She also said the library recognizes that people want to return books, but there are sometimes challenges to doing that on time. And when the fines begin to add up, sometimes people are embarrassed and don’t want to use the library because they can’t afford to.

“We kept hearing, ‘We can’t afford to.’ Libraries are free. So, we weren’t meeting our mission. Now we are,” Birdsall said.

The Tompkins County Public Library is not alone in going fine-free. Some libraries in the Finger Lakes Library System, which comprises five counties, have already gone fine free. The movement is gaining traction nationally, too. Birdsall said more libraries have been going fine free because librarians nationwide have started to realize that fines don’t work.

Seneca County announced in January that its libraries would all be fine free as well.

Tompkins County Public Library. (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)
Tompkins County Public Library. (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)

Some libraries around the country have done “amnesty days” over the years, and during the no-questions-asked return period, libraries gained back thousands of books. When the Chicago Public Library held one in 2012, more than 100,000 missing books and other materials were returned, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Some research suggests library fines and fees do not have clear benefits, are costly to administer and might reduce library usage among low-income families. When Salt Lake City Public Library eliminated fees, for example, checkouts rose 10 percent and the number of cardholders increased by 3.5 percent, according to the library’s director.

Going fine free can be a slow process for libraries, who have come to rely on fines as a source of income. However, TCPL has been edging toward going fully fine free. When they instituted automatic renewals a few years ago, Birdsall said, it cut their fine revenue stream in half. And a year ago, TCPL removed fines for children’s materials.

Though TCPL once collected around $100,000 in fines, the fine deficit is about 1 percent — or $40,000 — this budget cycle, Birdsall said.

“We don’t want to rely on negative income, we want to rely on people supporting the library because they want to, not because of this artificial punishment,” Birdsall said.

To help make up the difference of no longer collecting fines, the library is starting a fundraising campaign, which was kicked off by a $5,000 donation from the Howard Hartnett Fund of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County.

“It’s exciting. I think it’s really going to open doors for people and allow us to really embrace our mission in a way that we just haven’t been able to because of that barrier,” Birdsall said.

For more details about the library going fine free, visit the library’s FAQ page.

Featured image: Jennifer Schlossberg, librarian and head of access and circulation services, helps a visitor check out at the circulation desk. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.