Arts & Culture

Houston Public Library to become a “fine free” system by discontinuing overdue fees

HPL is also hosting an amnesty period between January 17 and February 18. Users can visit any library location in Houston to return overdue books and check account statuses for any fees accumulated from lost or damaged items to be removed.

Macie Kelly/Houston Public Media

Houstonians will no longer have to pay fines for overdue books checked out of the Houston Public Library system. City council voted unanimously on Wednesday to become a "fine free" library system.

The library wants to encourage more residents to utilize its services without having to worry about fines, which have caused the system to see a decline in usage over the past few years.

Houston has 41 library locations and will join many other public library systems across the nation that have transitioned over to being a "Fine Free" library. Some cities in Texas that are fine free include San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Forth Worth. Other libraries across the nation that are fine free are New York City, Queens, Brooklyn, Chicago and Boston.

"HPL reviewed studies and other urban libraries nationally to understand how going Fine Free impacts a library system," said the Houston Public Library System in an email. "Studies have consistently shown that overdue fines do not encourage library users to return books on time, but rather deter library use, especially in low-income communities – fines often create a financial barrier and cause library users to stop using the library."

The library allows users to check out books for three weeks with the option of three eligible renewables for a loan period of 12 weeks. Items that are not returned back on the due date are charged $0.20 per day for adults and young adults items and $0.10 per day for children's items. Once users have accumulated $25 worth of overdue fees items can not be checked out until that balance is paid.

Over the years, the library has seen a decline in users and oftentimes it's because of past due library fees. Julie Mintzer with the Houston Public Library said they want to encourage people to use their services.

"This is an opportunity for us to bring people back, come back to the library, we want you to be here, we want you to realize that there’s so many resources that we have that we want you to participate in." she said.

Research has shown that overdue fines do not push people to return their books in a timely manner, but stray people away from using the facility, especially communities of color and low-income people.

"A fine free library system evens the playing field and incentivizes Houstonians to become lifelong users of our Houston Public Library,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement.

“When you analyze the numbers, you see that young people account for more than 27% of users with fines, preventing them from accessing free resources and tools for learning. Simply put, this is the right thing to do.”

When the Chicago Public Library decided to eliminate fines in 2019, the library saw a 240% increase in book returns. Other cities like Denver and San Francisco saw an increase in users and book returns.

HPL said they don’t expect the library's revenue to be impacted by discontinuing fines because revenue collected from the fines only made up about 1% of the library’s budget over the past five years.

"We’d much prefer people bring back the items than us charging them late fees," said Julie Mintger with HPL. "An art book or a very specialized book can be $400 and we would much prefer someone come back with that book – then the ‘revenue' that we would get from getting those late fines."

Although council unanimously voted to have the library fines removed, District A Council Member Amy Peck suggested council come back after one year to evaluate the progress of the library system since removing the fines and Mayor Turner agreed.

"My ask here is that by the end of the year it comes to commit just so that we can review it and make sure that its meeting that intended purpose," she said. "I feel like sometimes we vote on things here at council and we never get data or information after the fact to make sure that it's actually working as intended."

HPL is hosting an amnesty period between January 17 and February 18. Users can visit any library location in Houston to return overdue books and check account statuses for any fees accumulated from lost or damaged items to be removed. After the amnesty period has ended, users will be responsible for fees for lost or damaged items that are not returned 30 days after the due date.

The last amnesty period held by HPL was in 2014. HPL collected $30,000 worth of fines from accounts and $75,000 worth of materials were returned.

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