Fine Amnesty Campaigns Bring Rewards in Chicago, L.A.

Libraries report big return of materials—and patrons

February 23, 2016

Los Angeles Public Library patron Dennis Levin returned The Story of Scotch, a book he checked out in 1950, during the library's recent fine amnesty campaign.
Los Angeles Public Library patron Dennis Levin returned The Story of Scotch, a book he checked out in 1950, during the library's recent fine amnesty campaign.

Overdue library items were welcomed home at Chicago Public Library (CPL) and Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) branches this February during the libraries’ two-week fine amnesty campaigns.

CPL’s “Welcome Home” program ran from February 4–18, while LAPL’s campaign, “LAPL Misses You,” was held February 1–14. The libraries waived late fees on all materials during the campaigns.

CPL’s 80 branches received at least 20,000 items, worth about $500,000. This was CPL’s third time holding a fine amnesty program—the first was in 1985 just for children, the second in 2012 for all patrons.

“The fine amnesty really came out of how can we create an environment that’s more welcoming for our patrons and makes it easier to use our services,” says Brian Bannon, CPL commissioner. “We discovered that many patrons had longstanding fines that were not getting paid [and] were preventing them from using the library. And many of those materials were not getting back to the library.”

As a result of the 2012 campaign, CPL learned it may lose between $80,000 and $100,000 in revenue from fines, but in return, it received hundreds of thousands of dollars of materials and won back patrons who had stopped using the library.

“We felt that was well worth the kind of investment periodically,” Bannon says. “And that’s why this fine amnesty was marketed as a ‘Welcome Home’ campaign. It was welcoming home our library materials, and it was welcoming home our patrons.”

During Chicago Public Library's fine amnesty campaign, one tiny patron's returned books resulted in a receipt twice her size.
During Chicago Public Library’s fine amnesty campaign, one tiny patron’s returned books resulted in a receipt twice her size.

LAPL City Librarian John Szabo says he and other staffers have been talking about offering an amnesty program since last summer.

“We were looking at tying it in with Thanksgiving or a Valentine’s Day theme,” Szabo says.

The love-themed campaign, complete with an “I [heart] no fines” photo booth, was successful: 64,633 books were returned; 13,701 patrons had fines forgiven and accounts unblocked so they can use their library card again; and 7,297 people visited one of the 72 library branches and signed up for a library card, an unexpected benefit of the campaign, says Peter Persic, LAPL’s public relations and marketing director.

The program not only let patrons check out materials again, but it also introduced them to new services, such as 3D printing, digital skills training, and programming for kids, teens, and adults.

“It was a way to remind our patrons that the library is not the library of 10 years ago or 20 years ago. It’s not even the library of five years ago. We’re evolving and changing,” CPL’s Bannon says.

Social media engages patrons

To market the event, CPL created YouTube videos with a pro bono partner, FCB Chicago. The videos featured library staffers asking patrons to their return their items, saying “I have taken a vow of silence until all overdue books are returned” and “You’re worried about returning a book you checked out three months ago? Trust me—we’ve seen much worse.”  Collectively, the videos have 13,000 views.

“It helped us really engage our patrons in a fun way,” says Mary Beth Kraft, CPL’s director of marketing.

Among the oldest materials the two library systems received were a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, checked out at CPL in 1987, and Enos Mills’s The Story of Scotch, checked out from LAPL in 1950.

“What seems like a small amount of money—$10, $20, $30 to some people—is a difference between someone coming and using the library and not using the library,” Bannon says. “It’s something that we take really seriously in our mission. We want to make sure that the library is free and open to everyone.”

Setting up a fine amnesty program

For public libraries wanting to hold a fine amnesty program, Szabo says it’s helpful to market the program as a one-time opportunity and tie it to a theme. “There’s a reluctance to do it because of a concern that patrons will expect there to be such a period on an ongoing basis.”

Szabo also says a celebration after the campaign is key.

“A big part of the success of the campaign was the attitude of our library staff, at the desk and over the phone,” he says. “They did a really terrific job. Thank the staff, and allow yourself to have a celebration afterward with both the staff and the public to acknowledge the success of it.”

When considering holding a fine amnesty program, Bannon says libraries should also assess if their policies align with the current culture and mission of libraries. For instance, many libraries vary in how they treat fees, with some sending patrons to collection agencies for missed fines.

“These are interesting questions that we should be asking as a field—what is our core mission? While it’s important to get materials back, and we want to make sure that we have the right incentives for people to return those materials, I think it’s just important to talk about what the spirit of a public library is,” he says.