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Denver Public Library Going Fine-Free on January 1

Kelsey Yandura
The Denver Public Library is officially ending late fines on January 1, 2019. While that means customers will no longer be charged for overdue items, the library believes the policy will pay off in other ways.

"We're seeking to remove barriers for vulnerable customers who can least afford fines. Research shows that removing fines can have a dramatic effect in bringing back customers," says Erika Martinez, the DPL's director of communications and community engagement.

Currently, the total fine on an overdue item is capped at a maximum of $3, but those with multiple late items see those $3 charges multiply. Fines generated about $110,339 in revenue in 2017; the money went back into the city's general fund.

Aside from bringing back customers, Martinez says that the elimination of fines will have three major effects: increased circulation, more time for staff to focus on other initiatives, and more positive interactions between staff and customers.

Martinez acknowledges that some staff members were concerned that people would not return books, movies, audiobooks, magazines, ebooks and other items now that fines are being removed, but that potential challenge will be counterbalanced by the maintenance of fees for lost items, she says.

So while late fines are ending, customers who lose items will have to pay to replace them. If an item hasn't been returned fourteen days after its due date, a hold will be placed on a customer's account. That hold will be removed when the late item is returned; if it's still missing 28 days after the due date, it will be considered lost, and the customer will have to pay a replacement fee. (If the customer subsequently returns the very late item, there will be no charge for replacing it, but any third-party collection costs may be assessed.)

This transition to a fine-free library system has been years in the making. The DPL never charged late fees for senior citizens; in 2008, it stopped charging fines for late juvenile materials. In 2014, the library did the same thing for young-adult items. Starting in 2016, the library also began experimenting with auto-renewals on checked-out items.

The move to end all late fines became public in September, when the city released its proposed budget for the upcoming year. Denver City Council approved the budget in November, making the transition to a fine-free  library official.

In getting rid of late fines, the DPL is joining libraries in such cities as Columbus and Salt Lake City, as well as Arapahoe County, which is already fine-free. Any Colorado resident, as well as any student enrolled in an in-state college or university, is eligible for a free DPL library card, and 537,788 people are currently taking advantage of that deal. Of 272,426 items out from the library right now, 20,000 are overdue. another 83,459 are considered lost.

As part of its campaign to promote the new, fine-free policy, the DPL will mail postcards to customers, telling them that all past fines will be erased starting in 2019; $474,000 in overdue charges accrued by almost 85,000 customers will be forgiven, according to the DPL. If a customer fills out the card and brings it back to a library branch, it will be entered a drawing to win an iPad Mini. By the end of the promotion, the library will have given out fifteen iPad Minis, an additional incentive that library staffers hope will entice past customers to return, all sins forgiven.

"There's a shame associated with late items. We're trying to turn that around, get people back in and start using our branches again," says Martinez.

Update: This story has been updated to note that third-party collection costs may be assessed, and to add the statistics for number of DPL cards issued and items lost.