With the support of Mayor Sylvester Turner and approval by Houston City Council, Houston Public Library (HPL) will no longer charge late fines on overdue books and other borrowed items. This change is effective January 11, 2023. By eliminating late fines, HPL joins other public library systems across North America in lowering financial barriers to library access and creating more equitable services for all users.
Studies of libraries that have gone fine free found a higher rate of return on borrowed items, as well as an influx of users returning to the library with the barrier of late fees removed. Under previous fine-related policies, approximately 25% of HPL account holders owed fines, and 70% of those fines were accrued before 2015. Fines are intimidating enough to block customers from using library services. With the passing of this update to the standing ordinance, many Houstonians, including those who are in the most need of library services, will regain access to the vast resources available—from books and audiobooks to mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi-connected laptops.
"A fine free library system evens the playing field and incentivizes Houstonians to become lifelong users of our Houston Public Library," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "When you analyze the numbers, you see that young people account for more than 27% of users with fines, preventing them from accessing free resources and tools for learning. Simply put, this is the right thing to do."
HPL does not expect the elimination of late fees to impact revenue in a significant way, given that revenue from fines has comprised less than one percent of the Library's budget over the past five years. Fines have proven to be a strain on staff time and resources due to policy enforcement and account management.
HPL has offered fine forgiveness in the past, and overdue fines were eliminated on children's materials for students of area school districts participating in HPL's Learning Link program.
To give all customers an opportunity to clear their accounts of monies owed, HPL has designated an amnesty period to occur from January 17 through February 18, 2023. During the amnesty period, library users are invited to visit an HPL location to return overdue items and review their account status for fees that may have been incurred for lost or damaged items. Library staff will assist with clearing all charges from accounts. Once the amnesty period ends, accounts will reflect fees to replace lost or damaged items that are not returned 30 days after the due date. HPL extended amnesty for fines in the past, most recently in 2014, when clearing accounts of $30,000 in fines led to the return of $75,000 worth of overdue materials. This is consistent with trends across the country. When Chicago Public Library removed fines in 2019, that system had a 240% increase in book returns. Denver Public Library had a 35% increase in customers returning to the library when fines were removed in 2018 and a 10% increase in lost materials being returned. San Francisco Public Library's 2017 amnesty period resulted in the recovery of 700,000 lost or overdue items, and more than 5,000 customer accounts were restored to good standing.