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Chicago Public Libraries Will Ditch Overdue Book Fines, Becoming Biggest US City To Do So

"People love the library. They don't love the fines," said Mayor Lori Lightfoot. "And the fines are a barrier to them coming back."

The children's section of the new Independence Library.
Alex Hernandez/ Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Chicagoans will no longer have to pay late fines at the city’s public libraries.

The Chicago Public Library system will end late fines at all branches starting Tuesday, officials announced Monday morning, and those with outstanding fines will have the fines cleared once an overdue item is returned. Chicago is the largest city in the country to ditch public library fines.

Officials hope the move will save money and help more Chicagoans use the city’s public libraries.

“I think what we’ve seen from the experience of other libraries is people feel like [a fine] is this big barrier,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “We’re going to give them extensions of time to renew the materials. Our hope is from [the] experience that we’ve seen in other library systems is people will comply.”

Library patrons will still have a set date by which they have to return books and other rented materials, and they’ll still be barred from checking out more items if they have overdue material or haven’t paid the cost of a missing item. But they’ll no longer have to pay late fees — which start at $10 but can go much higher — to continue using the library.

Officials hope that policy will lead to more people returning overdue items, which could ultimately save the city money. The city takes in $850,000-$900,000 in late fees but often pays more to collect and maintain those fees than it gets back in revenue, according to the city.

And the Chicago Public Library system has previously hosted several short “amnesty” periods in 2016 and 2012 where people could return late materials without facing fines, and more than $1.4 million worth of books and other items was returned, according to a city news release.

The fines kept people — especially those who are young or low-income — from using the library and disproportionately affected communities, according to the city. While one in three patrons in the library system’s South District (below 59th Street) was unable to check out items because they owed fines, just one in six people in the North District (North Avenue to Howard Street) were barred from the library due to fines.

“What we’re seeing is 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,” Lightfoot said. “But the library isn’t about a money-making decision. This is about educating folks, giving them access to learning … .

“We’re less concerned about the economics … . We want people to come and use the libraries.”

Lightfoot said the move has helped reduce the amount of people keeping books long past their due date in other cities that eliminated overdue fines.

The city expects thousands of outstanding items to be returned and for thousands of patrons to start going to the library again now that fines are gone.

“People love the library. They don’t love the fines,” Lightfoot said. “And the fines are a barrier to them coming back.”