CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Chicago Public Library will eliminate all late fines starting Tuesday – and wipe out all users' existing fines – becoming the largest public library system in the U.S. to go fine-free.
Books and other materials will still have due dates, but the library will no longer impose fines when they are returned late. Card holders can still be prevented from borrowing other materials if they are more than seven days late returning an item, and will be required to pay the cost of replacing an item that is lost.
Library users also will be able to automatically renew some materials if they need to hold onto them past the due date.
Library Commissioner Andrea Telli said research has shown late fines can actually be counter-productive, as many people end up not returning borrowed books and other materials at all when late fines pile up too high. In addition, low-income library users too often end up locked out of libraries altogether when they are denied further access due to late fees.
"Libraries around the country are coming to the realization that overdue fines do not ensure that materials are brought back any more promptly," Telli said. "Research has found that late fees hurt those who are most in need of free access to the materials that enable lifelong learning, and these patrons are losing touch – sometimes permanently – with their libraries, and the library in turn is losing touch with its materials."
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, much like parking tickets and other government fines, overdue library fees disproportionately affect minority communities. The mayor said one in three Chicago Public Library card holders on the South Side have been blocked from access because of late fines, compared to one in six card holders on the North Side.
"We know that when we take away barriers for working-class Chicagoans, and undo the cost of being poor in Chicago, we give everyone a real shot of fulfilling their economic potential," Lightfoot said.
The fines also affect a large portion of children, preventing them from accessing materials to help them learn outside of school.
"Twenty percent of library card users blocked by CPL because of late fees are actually under the age of 14, meaning that tens of thousands of youth under 14 are blocked from the library simply because of fines," Lightfoot said.
The mayor said too many library users get locked out of borrowing materials over a small amount of fines, and never come back.
"Once you reach the fine level, which is just $10, you can't borrow anything else, and frankly that prevents people from coming into the library," she said.
Lightfoot said the move to a fine-free library system should be budget-neutral, because more users than before will return materials that libraries otherwise had to replace if a user held onto them rather than paying late fines. She also noted that late fines make up only 1% of the Chicago Public Library budget.
"When San Diego went fine-free, an analysis estimated their library system was spending more than $1 million per year on trying to collect fines, while only bringing in $600,000," Lightfoot said.
Telli said, before eliminating late fines, the Chicago Public Library collected about $850,000 a year in fees, but had about $3.9 million worth of overdue materials that weren't returned.
The elimination of overdue fines at the Chicago Public Library comes on the heels of the mayor's overhaul of fees and fines the city imposes for missing the deadline to purchase city vehicle stickers, which she said was aimed at preventing drivers from ending up in debt – and sometimes losing their cars – because they can't afford the penalties.
In addition to eliminating late fines, the mayor said the Chicago Public Library also soon will open its branches on Sundays, but she did not provide specifics, noting the system still has to hire additional personnel to make that happen.
Telli said the rollout of Sunday hours at branch libraries would happen over the course of the next year.
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