Eliminating a barrier to access and ensuring that all New Yorkers have free and open access to knowledge and opportunity.
Brooklyn Public Library, The New York Public Library (which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island), and Queens Public Library have become the latest and largest public library systems to close the book on late fines, joining other major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Seattle, and Dallas to go fine-free. Combined, New York City’s systems represent the largest municipality to eliminate fines.
New York City’s three systems have also cleared all prior late fines from patron accounts, allowing New Yorkers to enter a new chapter of recovery and renewal with clean slates.
In an effort to welcome patrons back or to libraries for the first time, the three systems are holding a week of giveaways and special programs at all branch locations beginning on Monday, October 18, 2021. During that week, New Yorkers are encouraged to stop by, reconnect with their local libraries, check out materials, and return anything they may have at home—fine free. For more information on the week, visit the individual system websites.
The goals of this major policy shift (fines have been in place since the three systems were created at the turn of the 20th century) include encouraging increased usage of the library systems, as well as creating a more equitable system that does not disproportionately impact high-need communities. Under the previous model with late fines, patrons would have their cards blocked if they accrued more than $15 in fines. At the time of the announcement, about 400,000 New Yorkers would fit into this category, 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.”
“Our public libraries and school communities work hand in hand to help students think critically, broaden their imaginations, and become lifelong learners,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter. “As an educator I know firsthand the power of equitable access to information and knowledge, and I applaud our public library partners for taking this critical step. Eliminating fines in New York City will benefit generations of children and help foster their love of learning.”
In the NYPL system, branches in high-need communities (median household income below $50,000) account for 6 times the number of blocked patrons as others. The 10 branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards are all in high-needs 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.
Similarly, for 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 $50K.
This trend is more pronounced for patrons 17 years old and under: about 30% of blocked accounts would belong to children and teens; in Queens, 65% of blocked accounts would belong to this group. In 2017, when a full citywide assessment was done of blocked cards, 80% of blocked youth cards were located in low-income communities.
“Public libraries strive to be the most democratic institutions in our society, providing all people access to the resources they need to enrich their minds and improve their lives,” said Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library. “Eliminating late fines means providing truly equitable access to everything the Library has to offer.”
“During the pandemic, it was clearer than ever that we live in a Tale of Two Cities, with our most vulnerable citizens too often left behind,” said New York Public Library President Anthony W. Marx. “We must work to ensure that we are adhering to our mission of making knowledge and opportunity available to all, and that means addressing late fines. They are an antiquated, ineffective way to encourage patrons to return their books; for those who can afford the fines, they are barely an incentive. For those who can’t afford the fines— disproportionately low-income New Yorkers—they become a real barrier to access that we can no longer accept. This is a step towards a more equitable society, with more New Yorkers reading and using libraries, and we are proud to make it happen.”
“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. I vividly remember as a child having late fines on my card and hesitating about going to the library when I needed it,” said Queens Public Library President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott. “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.”
While the details are slightly different per system (and specifics can be found at bklynlibrary.org, nypl.org, and queenslibrary.org), generally, under the new fine-free policies:
- New Yorkers of all ages will no longer need to pay any late fines on overdue materials
- In the past, library cards were blocked if they accrued $15 or more in fines; that will no longer be the case
- New Yorkers will still need to pay replacement fees if they lose material. Materials are considered lost after being overdue for about one month. If materials are returned, however, no fees will apply
- Cards will be blocked from borrowing additional physical materials if patrons accrue replacement fees (thresholds differ per system); note that even with a block on their cards, patrons can still access computers, e-books, and other digital services.
New York City’s three library systems have been closely evaluating fines for over a decade, testing various models and programs to determine the best path forward. Since 2010, they have conducted several “Read Down Your Fines” programs and two amnesties for kids and teens, the most recent of which was held in 2017. One year after that latest amnesty program, there was an over 60% increase in the percentage of previously blocked children and teens who then checked out materials from their public libraries; this effect was most pronounced in the lowest-income neighborhoods.
Additionally, as a case study, children and teens with fine-free MyLibraryNYC cards (special cards issued to participating New York City Department of Education schools) check out 30% more items on average than their non MyLibraryNYC counterparts but only have marginally higher loss rates (less than 2 percent difference).
The Urban Libraries Council estimates that over 270 libraries in North America have gone at least partially fine-free; while it is still too early to share results in many instances (due to the disruption of the pandemic), the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and early indicators are good: for example, 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.
For many families, even a few additional dollars for an overdue book would prevent them from accessing the opportunities libraries offer. The fine policy in effect priced out the most vulnerable, scaring families from using a free public library system and creating an ethical conundrum that can longer be tolerated.
The library systems collected about $3.2 million in late fines revenue in Fiscal Year 2019, the last non-pandemic year. Since March 2020, the systems have suspended fines to accommodate patrons during the COVID-19 pandemic. As they have not collected late fines in over a year, they have found ways to absorb the lost revenue from fines.
“Some might say fines teach accountability and ethics. I disagree. 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,” said Marx.
“Libraries are for everyone yet monetary fines create barriers to accessing library services for those who need it most. I want to thank our three Public Library Systems for taking this important step to advance social equity and bring more New Yorkers back to our great libraries,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
“As the Chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries, I fully support New York City’s three public library systems eliminating late fees. Access to knowledge is one of the great opportunity equalizers in our society, and late fees were a barrier to that access – certainly to check out books, and in many instances, it kept people from even visiting their local library. This change will impact roughly 400,000 New Yorkers and I’m excited for what this new chapter of equity brings to our public libraries,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer.
“Late fines have prevented far too many New Yorkers from accessing the books, resources, and materials that they need to learn and thrive,” said Council Member Adrienne Adams. “Eliminating these fines, and clearing existing charges will go a long way toward making our libraries more equitable for all communities. I thank the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library for making this important and impactful change for all New Yorkers.”
“I absolutely support New York City’s library systems’ decision to eliminate late fines. This decision will re-open the door to access for many New Yorkers who have been blocked for years under the previous policy. It helps solidify the essential role that public libraries play for all of us, despite income. Libraries are a place of knowledge, a place of peace, a place of safety, a place of growth, and most importantly a place of community,” said City Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo.
“Eliminating late fines is a powerful step toward ensuring our unparalleled public library systems live up to their founding missions. No New Yorker should be denied the opportunity to access the library’s vast treasures because they’ve accrued late fees — especially when we know that these fees fall hardest on younger people and underserved communities, for whom public libraries are a lifeline. I thank the leadership of Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library, and New York Public Library for this groundbreaking announcement, and ensuring all New Yorkers can enjoy our public libraries,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
“Libraries play a key role in communities as meeting places, education centers and public spaces at no cost to our residents,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “Libraries are especially critical for our youth, to nurture their love of reading and create lifelong fans of literature. The news that New York City’s three public library systems will eliminate late fines is a great step towards making sure we continue to keep libraries affordable to everyone.”
“I commend the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library on eliminating their late fines,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “This is a groundbreaking move that will turn the page and improve equity and access to our library system for countless New Yorkers who may have avoided utilizing the library system in the past because of current and prior accounts that accrued late fees.”
“Exciting day for Queens and New York City; goodbye late fines! Our libraries historically enriched the minds of the young and young at heart, and eliminating barriers like late fines gives us more opportunities for knowledge and enjoyment. The late fine elimination is the good news we needed during these trying times, and I thank all the library systems for making this happen,” said Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr.
“As an avid reader, it is encouraging to know that this effort may stop any hesitation Staten Islanders have to borrow books from our great public library system located across the borough,” said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. “I want to thank the folks at the NYPL for removing any late fines of existing patrons, as well as prioritizing access to the world of books, especially for our youth. But who is going to break this news to Joe Bookman, Library Cop? (Seinfeld joke for the uninitiated)”
Brooklyn Public Library
Brooklyn Public Library is one of the nation’s largest library systems and among New York City’s most democratic institutions. As a leader in developing modern 21st-century libraries, we provide resources to support personal advancement, foster civic literacy and strengthen the fabric of community among the more than 2.6 million individuals who call Brooklyn home. We provide nearly 65,000 free programs a year with writers, thinkers, artists, and educators—from around the corner and around the world. And we give patrons millions of opportunities to enjoy one of life’s greatest satisfactions: the joy of a good book.
The New York Public Library
For 125 years, The New York Public Library has been a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library receives approximately 16 million visits through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at www.nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support.
Queens Public Library
Queens Public Library is one of the largest and busiest public library systems in the United States, dedicated to serving the most ethnically and culturally diverse area in the country. An independent, non-profit organization founded in 1896, Queens Public Library offers free access to a collection of more than 5 million books and other materials in multiple languages, technology and digital resources, and more than 87,500 educational, cultural, and civic programs a year. It consists of 66 locations, including branch libraries, a Central Library, seven adult learning centers, a technology lab, and two teen centers.
Photo credit: Harlem Library 9 West 124th Street NYC.