Denver Public Library says goodbye to overdue fines

Libraries find circulation dropping even after reducing, eliminating late fees


When Denver Public Libraries lowered daily overdue fines in 2014, the goal was clear —the libraries were trying to “reduce barriers to customer access,” Jennifer Hoffman said.

Hoffman, who is the books and borrowing manager at DPL, said the adjustment fell somewhat short of DPL’s vision.

“Those changes were helpful,” she said, “but they really just weren’t quite as impactful as we had hoped.”

The reduction in late fees, which decreased daily fines on an item from 25 cents to 20 cents and set a maximum fine of $3 per item, appears to have had little impact on the total number of items circulated, or checked out to customers, by DPL.

Before the adjustment in 2013, DPL had a circulation of 9,811,501. However, by 2015, total circulation had dropped to 9,097,572.

Despite a steady increase in DPL’s expenditures, its 2017 circulation was still lower than that of 2013 at 9,471,889.

In an effort to produce a more significant increase in the circulation of its materials, DPL eliminated all daily overdue fines as of Jan. 1.

“If they don’t bring an item back by the due date, on day 14, they’re going to be blocked — they can’t check out anything else,” Hoffman said. “If they bring that item back, there’s not going to be an overdue fine or anything.”

Should a customer fail to return an item 28 days after the due date, a hold will be placed on his or her account until a replacement fee is repaid, a policy that was already in place before 2019, Hoffman said. However, because of the new policy, the fee will be waived for customers who bring back overdue items, regardless of how much time has passed.

Meanwhile, the changes made to encourage library checkouts in 2014, such as a process that automatically renews items the day before they are due, have remained a part of library policy.

“We really didn’t like the fact that customers were being blocked for fines for items they had actually returned,” Hoffman said.

“And because some customers would renew things late multiple times, they would rack up like $30 in overdue fines for a single item,” she said. “It was crazy.”

DPL started discussing whether or not to eliminate late fees back in 2014, at a time when several other libraries were doing the same thing. The High Plains Library District in northern Colorado, for example, did away with overdue fines for most items in 2015.

Meanwhile, many other Colorado libraries continue to impose overdue fines because of the potential benefits of such policies. At Douglas County Libraries, where patrons are charged 20 cents per day for an overdue item, Amber DeBerry says some patrons view late fees as a learning experience.

“Some of our staff have heard from our patrons that the late fees are used to teach their children about responsibility,” said DeBerry, director of community relations at DCL.

She also added that, while DCL has discussed the idea of eliminating fees in the past, it does not have plans to do so in the near future.

Still, circulation continues to drop

As for those libraries that have eliminated late fees, many have yet to see a noticeable effect on their circulation rates.

For High Plains Library District, circulation rose in 2015, the year the policy change was implemented, by 1.18 percent; in the years that followed, however, circulation began to decrease once again, dropping by nearly 200,000 items between 2014 and 2017.

In total, from 2015 to 2017, HPLD’s circulation decreased by 8.1 percent. Meanwhile, at DCL, where late fees are still collected, circulation only decreased by 7.46 percent over those two years.

However, though doing away with late fees does not always affect a downward trend in circulation, Hoffman said the practice has other benefits. She and her colleagues hope the elimination of late fees will create a better experience for Denver’s library-goers, just as the policy changes did in 2014.

“Even though we didn’t charge overdue fines for children’s materials, the worry of bringing things back late sometimes would keep parents from checking stuff out,” she said.

She added that the automatic renewal process has “reduced stress” for these customers.

Ideally, the elimination of overdue fines will be permanent, she said. However, the library will continue to evaluate and respond to the policy’s effectiveness in achieving library goals.

“The elimination of fines is not in any way to suggest that we don’t want our materials back,” Hoffman said. “It’s really more that we would much rather give customers continued access to materials than levy arbitrary fines that may be difficult for them to pay.”


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