On Jan. 1, 2020, something big happened for patrons of The Seattle Public Library: The Library stopped charging daily overdue fines, a change that Seattle voters approved as part of the 2019 Library levy.
Why the change? As the Library shared leading up to the levy, we were following research showing that daily late fines were a significant financial barrier to access for many in our community, including lower-income youth and families, and insecurely housed people and families.
Research also indicated — contrary to conventional wisdom — that eliminating late fines would likely have little to no impact on return rates and could increase use of Library materials.
Just over two months after this change, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting and transforming every aspect of life, work, society, and library services. Because of that, we haven’t publicly shared much about the outcomes of this change.
So when The Seattle Times recently asked our Circulation Services team for an update, we welcomed the chance to reflect on what we know two years later, about the impact of eliminating overdue fines.
We encourage you to read the whole article, by Daisy Zavala Magaña (you can also access it for free through NewsBank if you have a Library card). Below are a few paraphrased excerpts, plus a few additional points from the Library. (One caveat: The pandemic has been so disruptive that the data and conclusions we can draw from it are preliminary. We will know much more with a couple more years of data collection.)
- After we eliminated daily overdue fines, the number of people with suspended Library accounts due to overdue items decreased by half — from 10% to 5% of Library users. A very positive outcome on its own.
- Library items are returned, on average, six days before they are due, similar to when late fines were in place.
- Return rates for books and other items, as of March 2022, are also similar to 2019 rates. On average, 7% of items were overdue during the first months of 2022, which is about the same as before the policy went into effect. Considering how much the pandemic has disrupted people’s daily habits, this is a positive trend.
- The number of long overdue or lost items has decreased significantly — by about 38%.
Another positive outcome is that wait times for holds on materials are the same as they were in 2019, which is also contrary to what some expected. Although the Library did see some increases in hold wait times in 2020 and early 2021 (presumably because of the pandemic), they have returned to 2019 timelines, which we know is important to Library users.
In addition to what we see from the data, anecdotal experience at the Library suggests that this change has been positive for many patrons, has made the Library easier to use and more accessible, and has reduced stress during a very stressful time.
In the past two years, the Library has also made other changes to expand access, including improving our Library card application process to make it easier to get instant access to services and materials. Find applications in five languages at www.spl.org/card, and find our Library card FAQs at our Get Started with a Library Card page.
If you’d like more background on the elimination of overdue fines and what it means, see our FAQs at www.spl.org/nolatefines.
If you’d like to read about other outcomes of the 2019 Library Levy, please see our quarterly levy reports.