New Yorkers Returned Almost 100,000 Old Library Books After Late Fees Were Eliminated

Some of the books date back to the 1970s.

Ever since the city's three major library systems (Queens, Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries) announced in October 2021 that late fees on borrowed materials would be canceled as part of a joint initiative, New Yorkers have felt more prone to abide by the rules and return all sorts of books. So far, almost 100,000 books—a lot of which are decades old—have found their way home in libraries across the city, The New York Times reports.

Some books are so old and dated that they had to be returned to different addresses. Others came with apologetic notes. "I'm sorry for living with these books so long," one note read. "They became family."

The removal of late fees lifted a weight off the chest of many New Yorkers, but a sense of embarrassment is still lingering. Billy Parrott, the director of Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in Midtown, told The New York Times that most books were returned by either mail or book drop. But librarians won't judge anyone. "We just care about the books," Parrott said.

The no-fee initiative was the libraries' way of attracting patrons back to the 200 branches across the city after a prolonged time of pandemic-mandated limited hours and access. The initiative was a success: In addition to the thousands of books returned, New York's libraries witnessed a 9-15% increase in returning visitors.

Prior to October 2021, the rate for late fees for most borrowed materials in New York City was 25 cents a day, except for Brooklyn, where libraries were charging 15 cents. Children's books were instead priced 10 cents a day, while DVDs fees amounted to a few dollars. If a book wasn't returned within 30 days, it would be marked as lost, and the library would charge the patron a replacement fee. Anyone who owed the library more than $15 would be marked and wouldn't be able to check out materials anymore.

While late fees were profitable (the New York, Brooklyn and Queens Public Libraries collected over $3 million in 2019), they weren't necessary. After Nashville, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco libraries decided to forgo late fees—and after the pandemic had New York suspend library fines—the Big Apple followed suit.

"We learned that we could adjust our budget to do everything we needed to do and cover the lost revenue, because we're not in the revenue-generating business," New York Public Library President Tony Marx told The New York Times. "We are not in the fine-collection business. We're in the encouraging-to-read-and-learn business, and we were getting in our own way."

Canceling late fees also meant taking into account the difficulties faced by low-income communities. "For those who can't afford the fines—disproportionately low-income New Yorkers—they become a real barrier to access that we can no longer accept," said Marx in an official statement. "This is a step towards a more equitable society, with more New Yorkers reading and using libraries, and we are proud to make it happen."

According toThe Washington Post, 400,000 New York residents had their library cards blocked before the initiative rolled out, as they owed more than $15 in late fees. More than half of those New Yorkers lived in high-needs communities. "As New York grapples with the inequities laid bare by the pandemic, it is all the more urgent that we ensure the public library is open and freely available to all," said Marx.

Without the fines, citizens definitely feel more encouraged to frequent libraries across the city. "I can't tell you how stressed out these fines made our customers," Tienya Smith, a librarian in the branch in Long Island City, Queens, told The New York Times. "Not having these fees erases all of that."

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Serena Tara is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.