Ending Overdue Library Fines to Support Literacy

Background: Memphis Public Libraries (MPL) seeks to serve as a hub for literacy, learning, and access to the economy for all Memphians. Like most library systems, MPL has long charged overdue fines as a way to encourage timely returns, so that books and materials can remain available to everyone. In the past few years, these fines have generated about $82,000 per year, less than 1% of MPL’s total budget. However, charging fines also comes with costs. Processing each fine takes time and resources, and (more importantly) national research shows that as fines grow, they can become an obstacle that prevents people from participating in library services. But is this true in Memphis? MPL dug into the data to find out.
Service Question: How do fines affect access to library services for all Memphians?
Analysis: MPL created a “heat map” of overdue library fines and matched it with census data to better understand who was most impacted. This led to an important realization: fines were disproportionately affecting the Memphians who rely on library services most. While households earning under $25,000 make up about 27% of the population, they accounted for 33% of all unpaid bills. Households in these areas were also more likely to have children under age 18, for whom literacy supports are especially important.  
At the same time, only 20% of fines ever received any money – more often, people simply stopped checking out books, or the fines were cancelled for policy reasons. A poll of library visitors at outreach events also found that having overdue fines was the number one reason for not having a library card.
Results: Based on these findings, MPL concluded that charging overdue fines is counterproductive to their mission of promoting literacy and learning for everyone, and officially eliminated these fines in November 2019. While patrons must still return old books to check out new ones, they will no longer be charged fines, and old debts are forgiven. The goal of this policy is to encourage people to come back to the library, and ensure everyone – especially children – can check out books.
Learn More: You can learn more about MPL’s new fine elimination policy at http://www.memphislibrary.org/eliminating-fines/. Find libraries and other public spaces near you here.