Starting June 1, anyone who checks out materials at an Oak Park Public Library location will no longer be charged overdue fines on those materials.

“Every single mom of young children I know is jumping for joy,” said Gwen Walski, an Oak Park mother of three. "I love the library, and my whole family gets so much out of it. I really appreciate the library making this decision to end fines. It’s such a relief.”

Additionally, cardholders will be able to renew eligible items (excluding items with holds, Hot Picks, and Multicultural Collection items) up to five times. That means more time to enjoy materials without worrying about overdue fines.

Under the revised Borrowing of Library Items policy, items will still have due dates, and cardholders still have motivation to get their items back on time. Anyone with more than three overdue items at a time will have their library card privileges suspended, including checking out more items and placing holds, until the items are returned or paid for.

Use, access, equity

“The entire point of our library collection is for it to be used,” said Experiences and Initiatives Manager Elizabeth Marszalik. “We want our books, movies, and music to circulate. We want people to check items out and enjoy them without stress and fear of fines.”

Policies should define how the library wants to interact with the community, said Executive Director David J. Seleb. “And this policy change is focused on access and equity. Overdue fines are a regressive method of raising revenue, they hurt the most those who can afford them the least, create stress-filled interactions, and require significant amounts of staff time to manage.”

As one library assistant put it: “Many people are living from paycheck to paycheck. If they incur a couple of big fines on their cards, or one of their children's cards, it’s enough to have them leave the library and stay away.”

Eliminating overdue fines is not a new idea, Seleb noted, and Oak Park is not the first library to do so. Other Chicago-area libraries that have already made this kind of change, including Algonquin Area Public Library and Addison Public Library, have reported that their patrons have been pleased with the change.

And in a policy statement, the American Library Association promotes “the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”

'Putting books in the hands of readers'

Fines have typically accounted for only about 1 percent of the library's total operating revenue, and they continue to trend down.

“The fact is, we don’t need overdue fines to have a healthy, responsible budget,” said Deputy Director Jim Madigan. “Oak Park taxpayers will not pay more to the library as a result of this change.

“Bottom line, the use of library materials and services is the point,” he added. “We don’t want to be in the business of collecting overdue fines. We are in the business of literacy and learning: circulating our materials, putting books in the hands of readers, and welcoming back those who may have been turned away in the past because of overdue fines.”

Our Borrowing Policy Then & Now

Removing barriers

At any one time, about half of library users have overdue fines.

Gwen Walski has been among those cardholders. With three girls of different ages, who each want their own books, she said her family often has 30 to 40 books out at any one time. When they've missed due dates, often during a school holiday or childhood illness, those overdue fines add up.

“Why can’t they get a book back on time?” Walski imagines people asking. “But if you’re not in that world of checking out a million children’s books at once, you just don’t realize.”

Other reasons you might not return materials on time: Your grandson is hiding them in his room. Your wife is in the hospital. You’re out of town. Your basement flooded, you broke your ankle, your car’s in the shop. You haven’t finished season two of Call the Midwife. Maybe you just forgot.

Whatever the reason, “We know one thing: overdue fines are a barrier to service,” said Experiences and Initiatives Manager Lori Pulliam. “Imposing them is contrary to why we exist and what we do: sharing the information, services, and opportunities that fulfill Oak Park’s aspirations.”

‘We’re all in this together’

Even without the threat of overdue fines, Walski said her three daughters will continue to learn about responsibly using library materials. “We’re learning about sharing,” she said. “And that we’re all in this together.”

Another mother of three, Megan Galeener, agreed: “We talk a lot about, well, if we keep this book, someone else can’t have it. It’s someone else’s turn.”

As for the overdue fines she’s incurred, Galeener said, “I can afford it, and I still feel shame. No one should feel shame when they come to the library. No kid should be denied a book.”