The New York Public Library is proud to announce a major policy shift: as of today and moving forward, we will no longer charge late fines on overdue circulating materials. In addition, we have cleared all prior late fines and replacement fees from patron accounts so that everyone gets a clean slate at the Library. 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.
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. As New York grapples with these inequities, we must ensure that we are adhering to our mission of making knowledge and opportunity available to all—and that means addressing late fines.
Our work, and the work of our peers, show that fines do not effectively incentivize the timely return of materials. If they did, we would never collect fines. That relatively low fine is not stopping someone who can afford it from keeping that book out a few extra weeks, but it is stopping families—disproportionately low-income New Yorkers— from accessing the world of opportunity that we offer, either because their cards are blocked (after accruing $15 in late charges), or because they’re literally too scared of fines to visit a branch. The 10 NYPL branches with the most blocked cards are all in high-needs communities, and on average one in five cards at those locations are blocked. This is even more pronounced amongst children and teens: 30% of blocked cards citywide belong to patrons under 18. This is a situation we can no longer accept.
Some might say fines teach accountability and ethics. I disagree. New Yorkers are quite reliable and responsible, clearly respecting our collections and the need for them to be available for others to borrow. We can reinforce the importance of returning books without attaching a financial burden that targets those most in need. If we’re talking ethics, it is clear to me that the real ethical conundrum lies with pricing our most vulnerable citizens out of using a free, public library system.
Considering the size of New York City’s three public systems (The New York Public Library covering the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, The Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library), it has taken time, thoughtful discussion, and careful analysis to take this important step towards a more equitable system. The time is now. We hope to see all New Yorkers at one of our branches soon.