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  • Writer's pictureMuni Suleiman

Much Overdue

On doing away with library fines.

By Muni Suleiman

I have always had a complicated relationship with the library. Even before I could read, the vastness of its collection intrigued and overwhelmed me. Once I gained literacy, I checked out stacks of books almost taller than I was and devoted weeks to getting through them. However, as I grew older, my family’s visits became more infrequent. This was in part because with age came more responsibilities and less time for reading. But it was more than that. Between the six members of my family, we had slowly but surely accrued a significant financial burden of late fees and lost fines. The library of my childhood, once seemingly boundless, was quickly becoming less accessible.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

Given that my first year at Columbia was fully virtual, I didn’t return to a library until this past fall. As I navigated Butler, Avery, and the rest of Columbia’s system, the New York Public Library was making major changes to its own. Last October, the NYPL announced that it would no longer issue fines for overdue books, a move that several city libraries across the country have also made. Despite municipal-level trends, fines remain a feature of Columbia’s library system.

NYPL president Anthony W. Marx penned an op-ed advocating to abolish fines in 2017, and held a one-day-only fine forgiveness day for borrowers younger than 18, along with the Brooklyn and Queens Libraries.

This time, however, the change is permanent. Marx cited the pandemic’s impact and the pressures that fines impose on low-income and high-need residents. Until last year, the NYPL blocked patrons’ cards after they accumulated $15 in fees. Unsurprisingly, the policy discouraged low-income New Yorkers from engaging with the library: the 10 branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards were all in communities with a median household income below the city’s average. As fines grow, guilt and shame restrict low-income residents’ access to not only books but also the other services and resources, such as internet access and public programming, that public libraries often provide.

Defenders of library fines often propose that fines teach borrowers responsibility and accountability while providing revenue for the library. Marx challenged that logic in the press release, citing research showing that fines do not, in fact, incentivize book returns. “But, unfortunately,” he wrote in the press release, “fines are quite effective at preventing our most vulnerable communities from using our branches, services, and books.” The public library systems in San Francisco, Indianapolis, and New Haven also reported that fines made up less than one percent of their budgets, further motivating them to abolish the practice. Especially if the economic benefit is virtually negligible, should libraries be prioritizing “teaching responsibility and accountability” over accessibility?

The Columbia and Barnard First-Generation, Low-Income (FLI) Partnership Libraries—or simply the Lending Library—aims to address this quandary in the interest of students like me. The FLI Partnership Libraries Access Form servesFLI undergraduate students while ensuring the confidentiality of their borrowing requests. Moreover, the library has extended loan periods, making them much more lenient than other Columbia libraries.

However, the Lending Library still exists under a general library system that administers fees. Policies vary based on the materials borrowed, if they are lost, and from where they were borrowed, but generally, Columbia suspends borrowing access across all libraries to anyone who accrues over $99 in fines and replacement fees. On top of threats to withhold transcripts or even diplomas, the fine system is intentionally punitive.

At times, I still hesitate to go to the library. Even if I’m not checking out a book or resource, the association between the libraries, fines, and financial security still persists for me and other disadvantaged students. When libraries continue to use fines, equitably enriching their communities with knowledge and resources ceases to be the priority; access to books and other resources becomes based on who can “afford” it. At Columbia, FLI students become, at best, discouraged from engaging with their libraries. By maintaining confidentiality and accessibility, the Lending Library takes great steps toward resolving this issue; however, when Columbia libraries as a whole actively retain fines, they also maintain the association between the library and the potential for punishment, deterring students from seeing the school’s libraries as a welcoming space for expansive learning.

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