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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Call to Action: Time to Get Serious About Fine Free

Today I would like to talk about going Fine Free. This is an issue I have been passionate about and involved with for many years as a Library Trustee.

Our small community library went fine free in September of 2019, but it was something we were working toward for over 2 years before that. We actively worked to make our budget work without fine money to prove to ourselves we could do it before we took the fine free plunge. And we did it before Chicago Public Library.

But here is the thing, fines have been suspended at just about every library in America at this point. You are all going to get by without fines. Why not use these extraordinary times to finally join me in the fine free plunge?

I travel around the country for my job and everywhere I go ask ask about their fine procedures. I am well educated on this issue and have heard it all. From a library whose city MANDATES that every city department get 5% of their budget from fees [this is horrible but true] to libraries that have no finical recourse to start open other than donations and fines.

I understand how fines actually effect libraries and their budgets. I am not naive. I have been on the finance committee at my library for 19 years. I managed a department budget at a library [less well off than my own community], I work with every type of library you can imagine and their financial situation is something I discuss with leadership as part of my pre-training planning. I am extremely well versed in library budgets.

Now everyone is forced to figure out life without fines. Budgets are going to have to be balanced. You will NOT have an option to charge your tax payers even more. [See when you put it that way, and that way is the truth, it sounds evil-- because it is!]

Also, we are closed to the public and we are going to need to find ways to help our patrons after we reopen. Many will have less disposable income and more need for the library. You want to pile it on even more when they are struggling to feed their families and recoup lost wages because they were too preoccupied to remember to return something? Come on people! This is so wrong and awful. I mean it always was but now you can see it more clearly.

I worked through the 2008 downturn in a low income community. We saw a huge uptick in usage and people were also incurring more fines. I worked for a city that not only encouraged us to fine our patrons but then took the fine money for the city coffers and didn't allow us to reinvest it in the library.

You know what I did during that time, as a Manager? Waived as many fines as I could from the RA Service desk. I even stepped in to circulation and waived fines. I flouted the rules because I cared about my patrons. And you know what? I received zero punishment or write ups. All I did was foster good will at our library.

Side story-- the turning point for me was the day a non-English speaking mom sent her son [bi-lingual] out to the car to get their laundry quarters to pay a fine so he could get items checked out for a school project. I never said no to anyone with fines again. [Items that needed replacement were a different issue, although if something old got damaged, something we weren't going to replace anyway, we waived].

This time, you don't have to do Civil Disobedience to stop fines. They have been suspended for you.

I am urging all of you to reach out to your managers and supervisors, or if you are one, take a stand. Your budgets are going to take a fine hit. Now is the time to redo the budgets and figure out how you will get by without them. And then...


We cannot help our patrons by being open right now, but we can help welcome them back. Their taxes are enough to ask from them [and if they are not, work to get your community the support you need for a tax increase; telling them you will suspend fines will go a long way toward winning those extra dollars the correct way]. Extra penalties have never been okay, but even more so now. Let's not make it harder on people.

Every excuse your leadership had as to why they could not stop fines has been proven false. There are no fines now. They have been stopped. And look, you are still functioning. Let's make that the new normal. 

I urge all of you to do what you can to advocate for fine free. Enough libraries have proven you can get by in normal times without fines, so now that you are forced to get by without fine income, you at least have proof it will work over the long term.

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