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I just got an email from the Free Library of Philadelphia announcing that they no longer charge fines for material returned past the due date. The announcement, reproduced on their blog contained the following sentence:

Overdue fines keep many patrons from enjoying all the Library has to offer, and evidence shows they have no significant impact on the return rate of checked-out materials.

That surprises me. I certainly expect to keep items out longer than I used to. So in a sense my "return rate" will go down, get worse, if "rate" is conceived as items per number of days out. On the other hand it seems possible that "return rate" will go up, get better, in the sense that customers will no longer see the overdue fines as a reason not to return overdue items at all, working as a sunk cost to apply to the charge for a lost item. But this seems like a rather far-fetched reading of the message, as naturally the original theory of overdue fines was that patrons would try to return books on time to avoid the fines, not that they would prefer to pay larger fines when returning books.

Do fines affect on-time and/or eventual return rates?

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    I am not sure this is something to be skeptical about. A simple google finds lots of supporting evidence for the claim. – James Jenkins Feb 18 at 18:29
  • @JamesJenkins: Sounds like an opportunity to post an easy answer for cheap rep! – Oddthinking Feb 18 at 21:54
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    I take that back. A quick Google scholar search found evidence in both directions and a literature review. This one will need some care. – Oddthinking Feb 18 at 21:57
  • @James Jenkins I guess my point is that this just does not make sense to me. I would need more than a huge number of sites repeating the same bizarre conclusion. One site (publiclibrariesonline.org/2015/11/the-end-of-overdue-fines) undermines the distinction: "patrons have thirty-five to forty-five days to return overdue items before they are charged replacement costs as well as a $10 collections processing fee... library cards will be suspended two weeks after patrons do not return their items." But most seem to defy common sense. – Chaim Feb 18 at 23:07
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    @Chaim: Let's be clear: The Free Library of Philadelphia's announcement includes that after 30 days, your borrowing privileges (for physical materials) are suspended until you return the item or pay the replacement cost. Does that address your doubt? – Oddthinking Feb 19 at 1:17
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OK, found this paper: Fine Efficacy: An Experimental Study of the Effect of Daily Fines on Borrower Return Habits. Of note:

However, "the number of books that went into a billed-as-lost status dropped 65%" in the first year of using the revised policies (Rupp et al. 2010, p. 168). While more books were slightly overdue, many fewer were kept until they were severely overdue. Simultaneously with eliminating fines, NYU also increased the number and frequency of overdue notices, which may explain this beneficial change.

(Though I recommend reading the entire paper.) Dropping the number of billed as lost materials in exchange for an increase in people keeping material a day or two longer is a reasonable tradeoff, and there's a cost associated with collecting fines, which may not be worth it for 25 cents a day.

I would also point out that behaviors can differ by the type of library. The linked paper is about university libraries, but a library open to the general public can have a different experience. (For example, I'll note that some libraries have eliminated fines for children's books specifically, because children's books are often checked out by children, and children are not the best at remembering things.)

In a more general sense I would also push back against the notion that avoiding overdue materials is a worthy goal in and of itself. The goal of a library is to be a resource to the community; while they do need materials returned to them, and fines can potentially help with that, libraries are not a video rental store. The goal is for materials to be used, and a book on the shelf is not being used.

Finally, there's also "Do Library Fines Work?: Analysis of the Effectiveness of Fines on Patron's Return Behavior at Two Mid-sized Academic Libraries", which I have been unable to find a free copy of, but may also be of interest.

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  • You might also look at how ebook have impacted brick and mortar libraries and impacted visits. I read someplace that the reason fines are being eliminated was to bring back patrons. – James Jenkins Feb 20 at 13:29
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Quoting from "Do Library Fines Work?: Analysis of the Effectiveness of Fines on Patron's Return Behavior at Two Mid-sized Academic Libraries" (probably paywalled)

The results indicate that fines indeed make a difference in patron book return behavior. Patrons who borrowed books under a fines policy returned books before due dates at a statistically significantly higher rate. As a result of this study, it is determined that a fines policy is an effective tool to ensure that books are returned on time and available to the maximum number of library users.

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