Don’t sweat it: TCPL goes fine-free

The library understands that life gets in the way


Stop panicking. The Tompkins County Public Library understands that life gets messy, so it’s doing away with fines on late materials.

So, take a breath if your schedule doesn’t fit the usual 9 to 5, or you simply forgot, or you just want to read that one passage a few hundred more times because it makes you so explicitly happy, or your daughter just has to watch that movie one more time while singing along to every song, or one of the thousands of reasons that you just couldn’t get the materials back in time. The library gets it.

In order to be a truly democratic and free resource to everyone in the community, the TCPL has been looking at ways to remove barriers to access for everyone in the community. Fines and fees on materials and resources at the library were identified as a major barrier to some residents so after finding the necessary funding to replace the fines and fees and getting the library board’s approval, TCPL is now officially fine-free.

Announced on Feb. 4 (just in time to start celebrating Library Lovers Month) TCPL explained its decision to go fine-free in a press release to the community: Studies show that small fines have no impact on return rates.

For TCPL Library Director Annette Birdsall, this initiative is nothing new. Back in 2017, while still the director of the Ulysses Philomathic Library in Trumansburg, Birdsall was able to get UPL to end fines on late materials.
“We want libraries to function in the best way possible for everyone,” Birdsall said. “We know that fines block access to people who can’t afford it, and we know that the one thing fines did really, really well was allow people to donate to the library through their fines. But that’s a privilege to be able to do that.”
Since 2017, UPL has continued to thrive as a fine-free library.

“Removing overdue fines has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on UPL,” Ksana Broadwell, UPL’s director, said in an email. “According to our records there has been no increase in lost or overdue books, our patrons love and respect the library as an institution and community resource. Patron feedback has been that of relief and appreciation for what a help this is in their busy lives. People want to bring their books back on time, but life happens: school closes, someone is sick, a car needs to go to the shop. We get it, we’re human too, life happens and we’re here for you.”

TCPL has come up with a list of ways that people can still support the library without paying fines and fees. Patrons can still make tax-deductible donations, give a gift of stock or securities, set up a trust or annuity with the Library Foundation as a beneficiary, establish an Endowed Fund, include the Library Foundation in your will, volunteer your time and talents at the library, contact your government representatives and advocate for more library funding, speak up for libraries at community meetings, and so much more.

Fines at TCPL were bringing in around $40,000 a year, Birdsall said. But with a commitment from the Library Foundation to find the necessary funding to cover the loss, and with a grant from the Community Foundation through the Howard P. Hartnett Fund, the income from fines will be replaced. Next year fines won’t even be a line item in the budget.

“We know that fines don’t work, they actually encourage you to keep materials if you can afford to pay it,” Birdsall said. “And they don’t allow you to use the library at all if you can’t.”

Now, without fines, the conversation can shift to the joy of reading and learning, instead of what you owe.

None of the circulation policies have changed other than fines. Readers will still get reminders when their materials are due and auto-renew will still renew materials that aren’t returned by the first due date.

“We will still continue to encourage people to return their materials because they’re ready and can get here,” Birdsall said.

The $1 a day interlibrary loan fee will still apply because the Finger Lakes Library System is the library that works with TCPL’s interlibrary loan system and if TCPL doesn’t return those materials it can lose its borrowing privileges. Materials borrowed from other libraries in the system that are not fine-free will still accrue fines if late. But materials checked out from the TCPL collection will not.

“I hope our success in going fine-free - that people really have seen this as a ‘welcome back,’ it’s an invitation to them to return, to not have this barrier- will be a model for other libraries,” Birdsall said.

Spreading the gospel of fine-free libraries has been part of Birdsall’s mission for years before she was ever a library director. Too many times in her years working for libraries she would meet residents who couldn’t afford to use the library because of fines. It didn’t make sense to her.

“How can you not afford a free resource?” she said. “It just became -over, and over, and over – a reality that we had to do this.”

One of the reasons it has taken a while to get to this point is the need for cultural change around the idea of fines, Birdsall said. Fines were put in with good intentions but their time has passed and the positives of getting rid of them far outweigh the negatives.

This is not the only action TCPL has taken to remove financial barriers to using the library. There are no more fees to use the meeting room spaces, there are no more hold fees (but Birdsall would like to note that it is work for the TCPL staff to reshelve books that are never picked up), and the library is always reviewing its policies to find more ways to make the institution more accessible. A recent change in policy allows for patrons to bring in snacks and covered drinks to enjoy in the library in certain areas.

So, go love the library! It loves you back at no cost.


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