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Chicago Public Library says eliminating fines has paid off

“As we see long-lost patrons and materials return to the library, the impact of eliminating overdue fines is clear,” acting Library Commissioner Mary Ellen Messner said.

Books on a library shelf
Chicago Public Library officials say eliminating overdue fines has paid off in more books being returned.
Sun-Times file

After eliminating overdue fees late last year, Chicago Public Library employees saw something that made everyone smile: a jump in the return of books overdue for six months or more.

About 1,650 long-overdue books were returned in each of the five months after fines were eliminated Oct. 1, 2019. Before then, about 900 overdue books were returned each month, according to the library.

The library system typically collected between $800,000 and $900,000 a year in late fees. That money is gone, but library official said what’s been gained is more important: valuable books and patrons who might never have returned.

About 11,000 library users who had more than $10 in outstanding fees wiped off their records have renewed or replaced their library cards in the past 12 months. Library officials say it’s a significant increase, but couldn’t quantify the gain.

“As we see long-lost patrons and materials return to the library, the impact of eliminating overdue fines is clear,” acting Library Commissioner Mary Ellen Messner said. “Chicagoans are connecting to their community libraries and using this resource without anxiety or financial barriers to access.”

Readership also got a bump.

In the five months after abolishing fines, about 361,000 books were checked out, a 7% increase from a year earlier.

Then the pandemic threw a wrench in things, and libraries shut down from March 22 until June 8, when 72 of 81 branches reopened.

Since reopening, in-person checkouts have dropped to 294,000 per month — a decrease of nearly 19% from last fall.

But ebook downloads are up to about 209,000 a month compared with 167,000 a month before the coronavirus struck.