A Chicago story with lessons for libraries everywhere | Kenan Malik

Chicago’s decision to abolish overdue book fines led to the return of lost books and an increase in borrowers

It’s the kind of policy that would normally be dismissed as “leftist do-gooding” or “fantasy economics”. But if you want to see what happens when you put public need over the collection of money, look to Chicago.

In October 2019, the city’s public libraries abolished all fines for overdue books. A year later, the impact has been extraordinary. Thousands of books have been returned, the numbers of users have shot up and the number of books borrowed has increased by 7%.

The greatest beneficiaries have been the young and the poor. Readers in more affluent areas are likely to download ebooks from the libraries, those from poorer areas to borrow physical books. Digital books do not incur fines but are deleted from a device when they become overdue. So fines fell disproportionately on readers who could least afford to pay, discouraging them from using the service. One in five library cards suspended for the non-return of books belonged to children under 14.

“Fines don’t teach responsibility,” observes Curtis Rogers of the Urban Libraries Council. “They just reinforce the difference between people who are able to pay for a common mistake and those who aren’t.” Chicago libraries have lost about $800,000 a year. But that’s a relatively small proportion of total costs.

Chicago is not the first US library system to experiment with abolishing fines. But it is by far the largest. And the result, so far, has been that the libraries have got back most of their lost books, more people have started reading and more people from poorer areas now use the service. Relying on trust rather than punishment might sound utopian, but it works.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist


Kenan Malik

The GuardianTramp

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