Boston Public Library eliminates fines for young cardholders


Julian Perez

Boston Public Library, or BPL has eliminated fines for patrons under 18 years of age.

Avery Bleichfeld, news staff

This month, Boston Public Library, or BPL, took a step toward embodying the phrase “Free To All,” which is carved above the entrance to the central branch at Copley Square.

On Nov. 1, the library eliminated all fines on overdue books for cardholders 18 years and younger in an attempt to facilitate access to library materials and programs. This comes as another step in a nationwide movement for libraries to go fine-free for some or all of their patrons.

According to an Oct. 25 press release, the Boston Public Library announced fines would be eliminated for youth card holders. It also announced that pending fines and replacement fees would be removed.

While there are no monetary penalties on overdue items, patrons must return items before more can be checked out and will still be responsible for paying for items that are not returned or lost.

According to BPL President David Leonard, the move reflects the library’s values of being accessible, welcoming and promoting reading at all levels for Boston’s youth.

“Too often, fines penalize those least able to afford them and have the unintended effect of turning young people, in particular, away from their libraries,” Leonard said. “That’s just not what ‘Free To All’ should mean in the 21st century.”

The Boston Public Library Board of Trustees chose to eliminate overdue fines for youth cardholders in a unanimous vote on Oct. 3.

At libraries nationwide, this follows the philosophy that overdue fines can create a negative experience for cardholders that keep them away from library materials and programs.

Jennifer Hoffman, manager of books and borrowing at Denver Public Libraries, which went fine-free for all patrons Jan. 1, said a system of fines is based on shame. Hoffman helped lead their push to eliminate fines.

“The presence of fines, or knowing that someone has a fine, would often keep them from walking into a library and experiencing all the other ways they can enjoy the library,” Hoffman said. “Because they’re worried about the $4 charge for a book they returned two years ago, they aren’t comfortable coming in.”

Paul Negron, communications manager at the Urban Libraries Council, an organization connecting libraries in 42 states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada, said that the impact of library fines is especially prevalent in low-income communities.

“Libraries have become much more than just a place to check out books,” Negron said. “Folks who are finding themselves utilizing all these services are those who might not have access to those kinds of things at home. Those are our low-income populations, those are our children … If your main source of access to these services and this information is through the library and you come and you have a late fee of $10 or $20 and that’s a huge deterrent, [it] leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths and people move away from the library and they don’t reengage.”

This deterrent can keep materials that otherwise would have a positive impact on children and families out of their hands.

“Books are expensive, videos are expensive, and oftentimes families with a limited income won’t have a lot of books or media if they don’t have an opportunity to access them through a library,” Hoffman said. “Research shows that having books in the home helps with school achievement, but if you’re charging fines to kids who have really limited transportation options — they can’t get to libraries themselves, and often their parents can’t get to libraries during working hours — it’s pretty easy for youth to have fines, which would then block them from [checking books out].”

San Francisco Public Libraries, or SFPL. which went fine-free for all patrons on Sept. 16, eliminated fines for youth in 1974. Michelle Jeffers, chief of community programs and partnerships, said that SFPL has shifted the culture in their libraries to prioritize youth access.

“Because of our culture of being fine-free for youth for 45 years there’s a lot of effort for youth. We prioritize programs for them, we prioritize resources for them, we treat them with all the privacy concerns that libraries treat adults to … ,” Jeffers said. “We really uphold the value of youth, children and teens within our library.”

Eliminating fines for youth encourages them to use the library long-term.

“One of the things in our mission statement is that we want to encourage the joy of reading and learning. So, we certainly want to encourage that joy of reading and learning from a young age,” Jeffers said. “We know that people who use the library as children, also become lifelong library users. We’re not here to serve just one age, but we do want to serve them at all the stages of growth.”

Moves to fine-free library systems create an environment for patrons that fit into a broader definition of the role a modern public library has. Negron said that a library is a community hub, not just a place to check out books.

“It’s a place that is welcoming, it is a place that is available for the public, no matter what part of the city or maybe county you live in, it’s an area you can go and you can get help for certain things that you need,” he said.

Boston Public Library offers youth Homework Help Sessions as well as computer workshops and other programming meant to stimulate public discussion.

“People do tend to equate libraries with books, which is a compliment,” Hoffman said. “However, we’re really about connecting people with ideas and information and that comes in so many different ways.”