New York Public Library Ends Late Fees, and the Treasures Are Coming

Some articles, checked decades ago, arrived with apology notes. “Enclosed you will find books that I have borrowed and kept at home for 28 to 50 years! I am 75 now and these books have helped me throughout my motherhood and teaching career,” one customer wrote in an unsigned letter that accompanied a box of books dropped off at the main branch of the New York Public Library last fall. “I am sorry to have lived so long with these books. They have become a family.

Three DVD copies of “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day,” a 2009 action film about Irish Catholic vigilantes in Boston that has a 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, have been returned to three libraries in three different boroughs .

When the New York Public Library System announced last October that it would eliminate all late fines, its goal was to get books and people back to the city’s nearly 100 branches and research centers after a year. and a half hours and limited access.

The objective has been achieved: a wave of late document returns has hit, accompanied by a significant increase (between 9 and 15%, depending on the district) in returning visitors.

Since last fall, more than 21,000 overdue or lost documents have been returned to Manhattan, some so old they were no longer in the library system. About 51,000 items were returned to Brooklyn between October 6 and the end of February. And more than 16,000 have been returned to Queens. (Libraries still charge a replacement fee for lost books.)

Some books were borrowed so long ago that they had to be returned to different addresses. In December, the Flushing Library in Queens received a package containing “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” a short story by English novelist James Hilton, which had been borrowed in July 1970 from an address now associated with a shopping mall.

Billy Parrott, who runs the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in Midtown, the city’s largest circulating branch, said most overdue items are returned by mail or book drop, rather than in person. It makes sense: late books can be a source of shame. But librarians insist they are not judging.

“We only care about the books,” said Parrott, who has worked for the NYPL since 2004.

Prior to the policy change, New York Public Libraries had been charging overdue fines since the late 1800s. At first, the rate was 1 cent per day. In 1954 it rose to 2 cents, then to 5 cents in 1959. The system’s most recent rate was 25 cents a day in New York (except Brooklyn, where it was 15 cents) for most materials , 10 cents a day for children. books and a few dollars a day for DVDs. (Fines were lower for customers 65 and older and people with disabilities.)

After 30 days, a book would be considered lost and a replacement fee would be charged. Anyone owing $15 or more in fees would be barred from verifying the documents. In 2019, the system collected more than $3 million in late fees, according to Angela Montefinise, the library’s vice president of communications and marketing. .

When Tony Marx joined the library system as president in 2011, his mission, he said, was to eliminate fines for good. Amnesty programs were put in place, and in Brooklyn a study was conducted on the effectiveness of fines and the barriers customers faced in returning the books.

Then, in 2017, the Nashville Public Library scrapped the fines, and fines in Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco followed two years later. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and fines were temporarily suspended in New York that Mr. Marx saw a clear opportunity to change the city’s system for good.

“We learned that we could adjust our budget to do whatever we needed to do and cover lost revenue, because we’re not in the revenue-generating business,” said Mr. Marx, former president of the Amherst College, in an interview. . “We are not in the business of collecting fines. We are in the business of encouraging reading and learning, and we get in our way.

For some townspeople, the fines had been particularly discouraging. Dominique Gomillion said she stopped going to her library in Jamaica, Queens, after books she took out for her 8-year-old daughter Ariel left her with more than $50 in library fees. late – a substantial sum for her as a single parent. .

“It’s just me and her,” Ms. Gomillion, a 32-year-old supervisor at UPS, said in a phone interview. “We don’t really have much other support.”

A few months ago, Ms Gomillion tried another library, the South Hollis branch, to see if she could clear her name.

“I was already ready to put the books back on,” she said. “And then Reggie came along, the librarian, and he was like, ‘I’ve got something better for you.’ And then he thought, ‘There are no more late fees.’ »

Ms. Montefinise recalled a customer at a branch in Dongan Hills, Staten Island who, after returning children’s books late, couldn’t believe the news and asked for a receipt to show his wife as proof.

“I can’t tell you how stressed these fines have been for our customers,” said Tienya Smith, a librarian who runs the branch in Long Island City, Queens. “Not having that fee erases all of that.”

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