The number of libraries dropping penalty fines for the late return of books has more than quadrupled in the past year, with those that have changed their policy citing an uptick in membership as a result.
Only a couple of libraries had a fines-free policy in the UK before 2018 (Rutland and Shetland), according to Public Libraries News, on top of which Trafford and Portsmouth similarly updated their policy in 2018. However in the past year, eight libraries followed suit in instigating the step-change (Halton, Kirklees, Blackpool, Bridgend, Bath and North East Somerset, Oldham, Leeds and Borders) Blackburn's Darwen Library has followed suit in 2020.
Subnum Hariff-Khan, library and information manager for Oldham Library, told The Bookseller the decision to remove library fines for users of its service had been based on growing evidence that library fines were "acting as a barrier to access" for some of the more disadvantaged groups in the borough. Income from fines had also been gradually declining over the years, dropping by almost £10,000 in the past four years, as a result of there being more methods for borrowers to renew books, and customers loaning more e-books.
Since enacting the new policy in August 2019, Oldham Library has seen a 6.5% rise in new joiners on the year before.
"At Oldham we are passionate about ensuring all our residents have equal access to opportunities," said Hariff-Khan. "We removed fines in August 2019 and while it’s too early to evaluate the full impact, early positive indicators have shown that membership figures have increased following the announcement compared to the same period last year.
"We have had positive stories of customers that have returned to the service. For example, one service user had stopped using the library for fear of incurring fines as they had caring responsibilities. They are delighted to re-join the service to not only borrow books for themselves, but also the elderly relative they are caring for."
Trafford Libraries, which kick-started the trend as the first service of any significant size to remove fines in April 2018, also has positive membership figures to show after implementing the policy. In the first full year (April 2018 to April 2019), the number of books issued went up by 4% on the previous year, and the number of visitors rose by 3%. From April 2019 to the end of December 2019, there has been a further increase of 17% for the number of books issued, and a 6% bump in the number of visitors to the libraries.
"It’s really encouraging to see so many other authorities now taking the step to do the same," said Sarah Curran of Trafford Libraries. "For me it was all about making sure we were a relevant, modern and inclusive service. From working with schools and various consultations we had done over the years, we knew that fines were a deterrent for people, especially families, using our libraries... There were some worries expressed that people would take advantage and not return books, but that hasn’t happened. Our rate of non-returned books has not increased in the time since we abolished fines.
"In addition, we have had many instances of people telling us they are now using the libraries because we no longer charge fines."
Nick Poole, c.e.o. for CILIP, said that while the organisation has not researched the impact of going fine-free, it was "watching the trend with great interest". The difficulty for libraries, he surmised, is whether the loss of income from penalty fines could be detrimental to a service, claiming the extent of its impact could be dependent on a library's funding model.
Curran confirmed Trafford Libraries didn't have to make up the shortfall from fines income (estimated at £30,000 per year) from its own budgets, as the Council made the decision to take it from central funds.
"Our view is that libraries should be accessible and welcoming for everyone, and so anything which reduces or removes barriers for people wanting to use them should be welcomed," said Poole. "However, many libraries are under real financial pressure and we would be very concerned if a service were planning to abandon penalty fines without being clear about how the lost income would be covered elsewhere. There’s no point removing fines if it makes the service unsustainable, undermines quality or accessibility, or if the policy simply has to be reversed 18 months later."
Poole added: "Even if it’s only a small amount of money, the income from penalty fines is sometimes the only ‘discretionary’ budget the library has access to, and as such it can be very useful money. A library’s fines policy should therefore absolutely be informed by its funding model, to ensure that any unintended consequences are taken into account and addressed beforehand. We would also like to see the decision to withdraw fines being taken jointly by the [local] council and the library service, so that they can work together to manage any impact on the library’s budgets."
Ian Anstice, who runs Public Libraries News, told The Bookseller no librarians he had spoken to about the fines defended them from any point of view other than their bringing in income.
"The view that it is the only way to make people return books has been proved wrong by the experience of the first services to remove penalties," he said. "It only takes one authority to prove that honest people are honest, and treating people like rule-breakers is not the way to go. Those public libraries that can afford to do so realise that removing fines removes a barrier to library usage and, as importantly, solves the problem of them being so inequitable—after all, a fine for a child from a low-income family is far more of a problem than the same fine for a high-income adult."
"Basically, fines are an artefact of the old Victorian system that is only staying due to inertia and funding need," he said, adding of the likelihood of the trend continuing: "As the amount of fines income reduces due to a reduction in book loans, the amount of money made from it reduces and makes removing fines easier."
According to last year's figures from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, which covered the 12 months to end March 2019, UK libraries recorded seven million fewer visits and book loans dropped 4.4%. Meanwhile, in England, the total amount of money earned from public library fines was £7m out of a total library funding of £700m—equating to 1%.
"I think councils can afford that," library campaigner Tim Coates said. "They need desperately to have a strategy to increase book lending, so it would be good if [changing policy to do away with library fines] formed even a small part of that.
"I think the worry would come if they started to re-build the book collections and found that too much was being lost. But we aren't in that position just yet."