Chicago Library Offers Rare Amnesty on $1.4 Million in Late Fees

Photograph by Matthias Haker

Yesterday the Chicago Public Library announced it would offer a three-week fine amnesty program for its users called “Once in a Blue Moon,” a reference to the rare nature of the project, and to the astrological event that coincides with it. From Aug. 20 through Sept. 7, the library—which is owed $1.4 million in outstanding fines on $2 million worth of materials—will accept all overdue items and waive the fees. Bloomberg Businessweek reached out to Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon to learn more.

How did the idea come about?

Fine amnesty programs have been around, and several cities have used them. When we talk about fines, we talk about the late fees that accumulate on items—not fines for their replacements. There are people who stop using the library as a result of fines. Maybe they weren’t able to pay the fine. Even though our average fine is around $14, for some that ends up becoming a real barrier to being able to come back and use the library. We haven’t done one in Chicago in about 20 years. If you do them on a semi-regular basis, it’s a way of reengaging people who have drifted away. It also makes sense because really there’s a point that we’re never going to get the money back from them.

Could you enforce fines more?

The average fine is around $14. The cost of actually going to a collection agency doesn’t make financial sense. Many of our users who are owing us fines, a lot of them are young kids who are learning the process of turning things in. We’re not going to send them to a collection agency. And it’s also about getting the materials back. When we did an amnesty program 20 years ago, we learned that we get way more materials back than fines that are owed in terms of value. It brings a large volume back into the library—which has a much bigger dollar value on it than the fines that were owed.

At what point do library fines plateau these days?

A book caps out at around $10. It’s 20¢ a day up to $10. We have the additional costs of buying the item, cataloging it, putting on the right stickers; and so if someone brings back a book, it’s worth considerably more to us than $10 because of all that’s involved with cataloging it. You bring it back, we run it through the barcode reader and put it back into the collection.

Is there a book that’s been particularly costly? That you keep having to replenish since no one brings it back?

We have large reference collections that are of high, high value, which you can look at between the walls of the library. Typically, the things you can take out are replaceable.

So not a certain novel?

No, although we’re encouraging those who return books to share their stories. You get lots of stories, like someone who dug around on their bookshelf and found out that their great-grandmother had this particular book, and it’s been out for thirty years.

What’s the significance of the scheduling to this? The astrological blue moon?

Coming into the end of the summer we talked about having kids start with a fresh slate at the beginning of the school year. A number of our team noted that the blue moon was happening in August. With the “blue moon,” we kind of wanted to put out there to the public that this isn’t something that will be happening on an annual basis—the last time we did it was 20 years ago. It just happened to coincide with the actual blue moon.

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