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Austin City Council closes the book on library late fines

The back of a person in between two rows of bookshelves
Sheryl Wong for KUT
The Austin Public Library system is doing away with fines for overdue books.

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Rosie Ninesling is a self-described “library delinquent.”

“I check out a huge stack every time I go, and then I’ll get lost in the books and I don’t realize they’re overdue,” she said. “I’ve racked up a lot of fines, which is horrible.”

Ninesling, who works at Austin Monthly, recently owed more than $50 in late fines after she brought her library books to Dallas for the holidays. She wasn’t able to renew them while out of town, so she watched the overdue fees tick up.

She ended up paying a portion of her fines — enough so that she could borrow more books.

“I know that I could afford to go in there and pay off all of my fines. I just haven’t done it yet,” Ninesling said. She noted that others may not be able to afford the fines and stop going to the library as a result.

“I think anything that deters people from going inside a library isn’t good,” she said.

Austin City Council members agree. On Thursday, they voted to make the Austin Public Library a library system free of overdue fines — where returning a book late doesn’t come with a price.

“What we really want to do is make sure that we’re not providing barriers to people using our amazing public library system,” Council Member Kathie Tovo, a supporter of the measure, told KUT before the vote.

Library users will still be expected to pay for lost and damaged items. A library representative said a state law prohibits the measure from applying retroactively, meaning the council vote does not waive overdue fines for people who currently owe them.

The library is looking into whether it can use money from its nonprofit arm, the Austin Public Library Foundation, to pay off current fines for users. Tovo said Thursday that she hopes the city can find resources to wipe these dues.

In 2018, the Austin Public Library eliminated late fines for children’s materials. But until Thursday's vote, the city still fined people for other overdue materials — 25 cents a day per book, up to $10 per item.

That put Austin’s libraries in contrast with hundreds of other public library systems across the country, including the San Francisco Public Library and the New York Public Library, which did away with late fines in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

Dana Conners, an assistant director at the Austin Public Library, says she supports ditching overdue fines.

“We’re really excited about it,” she said. “We think it’ll be a game-changer for people — people who haven’t been in the library in a long time because they feel like they can’t check out materials because they’ll have fines accumulate.”

When library users rack up $25 or more in fines, they’re no longer allowed to borrow books. Conners said this most commonly affects lower-income residents.

“It’s really about equity,” she said. “The people who generally have their cards blocked because they can’t afford to pay for their overdue fines are usually those who are lower-income status, who really need our services the most.”

People sit and stand at tables in the Austin Central Library
Sheryl Wong for KUT
When patrons racked up more than $25 in fines, they could no longer check out books.

If materials remain in overdue status for a couple months, the library sends that bill to a collection agency. According to data shared with KUT, between 2018 and 2019 the Austin Public Library sent the bills from roughly 4,100 cardholders to collection agencies; that number dropped significantly during the pandemic.

Removing fines for overdue materials means lost revenue for the city. In 2019, the Austin Public Library collected $182,651 in overdue fines. Users paid far fewer fines in the past two years, for pandemic-related reasons, and the library’s revenue from fines dropped by more than $100,000 annually.

Tovo said this money will have to be made up elsewhere.

“It will have an impact,” she said. City staff have estimated dropping fines could cost the city up to $350,000 a year. “We are moving into a really challenging budget year, and so we need to be mindful of looking for ways to increase revenue.”

But Conners and other supporters say what cash the city forgoes by scrapping overdue fines it may make up in books. When the Chicago Public Library system did away with late fines, the library reported an uptick in returned books.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the city eliminated overdue fines for children's library materials in 2019. It was 2018.

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