Philly Free Library takes steps to turn page on fines for overdue items

The Free Library of Philadelphia (Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The Free Library of Philadelphia is turning the page on overdue fines.

The library’s board of trustees adopted a new policy to eliminate fees on Wednesday, but fine-free borrowing won’t go into effect for up to six months

Siobhan Reardon, president of the Free Library, said officials must first address the logistics of implementing the policy, including updating technology systems and accounting policies, which will require further action by trustees.

The policy will increase overall visitors, encourage more patrons to return items, and improve customer service, Reardon said. The elimination of fines also will remove barriers and increase access for low-income residents and those suffering from poverty.

“A lot of people who owe fines, irrespective of their economic status, are embarrassed because they owe a fine and they feel that’s a challenge to their relationship with the library,” Reardon said.

Fines make up a fraction of the library’s $49 million budget and have been on a downward trend for years, falling to $148,000 last year from $421,000 in 2012. The library pumps that revenue back into children’s programming, volunteer services and technology.

Library officials will look to raise endowment funds and seek other revenue-generating opportunities to make up the lost funding, Reardon said.

Coupled with the library’s shift to a fine-free system, the Kenney administration was expected to waive a memorandum of understanding that requires the library to fork over $276,000 annually, Reardon said.

“It’s verbal and we’re getting it in writing right now,” Reardon said.

Mayor Jim Kenney supported the library’s shift to eliminate fines last month, saying fees were a punitive practice that set up roadblocks for patrons to use the library and prevent them from returning materials.

Philadelphia City Council floated a resolution in October calling on the library to end fines.

Patrons who lose items will still be required to pay for or replace them, and the library will limit the number of items a single patron can borrow at one time, Reardon noted.

“The quid pro quo is that you still have to return the material before you can borrow another object from the collection,” she said.

The library currently has approximately 500,000 items overdue.

Library officials removed fines for children under 12 in 2012, and they have been investigating the logistics of implementing the policy systemwide for the past year.

Fine-free libraries have been around for decades but calls for reform have grown in recent years. Philadelphia will join more than 200 municipalities that have already gone fine-free, including Chicago and San Francisco.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.