Ames Public Library Goes “Fine Free”

Ames Public Library Goes “Fine Free”

by Tracy Briseño 


All across the country, (and in Iowa,) libraries big and small are going “fine free,” and now Ames Public Library has joined them! But what does that mean? It means the Library no longer charges late fees on overdue materials, as long as they’re returned. (You’ll still need to pay for any lost or damaged items.)

Research shows that overdue fines are not as effective as once thought. In the past, the belief was that library fines encouraged people to return materials on time. What has been found is that materials are returned at much the same rate with or without overdue charges. In fact, there is growing evidence that long overdue materials are more likely to be returned if there are no late fees! “Overdue fines do not turn irresponsible patrons into responsible ones, they only distinguish between patrons who can afford to pay for the common mistake of late returns and those who cannot.” (San Francisco Public Library white paper) 

Ames Public Library and the City of Ames hold equity and access to be core values, and overdue fines certainly remove access and create inequity. In our own community, we hear from customers how overdue fines have kept people from checking out materials they needed or forced families to limit their children’s use of the Library. We know that having books in the home is very important for youth development—especially learning to read and reading for fun. The Urban Libraries Council tells us “Overdue library fees often represent a very small fraction of a library’s operating budget, yet disproportionately affect communities that have income insecurity or individuals with low incomes. Late fees add up and become insurmountable for some families when forced to choose between paying the fee and buying food.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed inequalities in our communities. People are facing additional struggles due to the intersections of the derecho, COVID-19, and racial injustice. Some have lost jobs, many are experiencing economic hardships, and families are in the middle of an extremely challenging school year. 

While people return their items on time the vast majority of the time, it’s hard to keep on top of library due dates when you’re working through big challenges. While library staff have always sought to work with people experiencing tough situations, the reality is that overdue fines are an extra burden during already difficult times.

COVID-19 has already given us some idea of how our community will respond to going fine free. When the Library closed in March, we started extending due dates and suspending fines, allowing people to stay home and keep their reading materials. When we began curbside service in May—and opened the lobby in July—we were thrilled to see people resume use of the Library, including returning their items. Our experience during this time matched the research we had been doing regarding fines—people value their library and want to be responsible patrons. The joy and appreciation our customers expressed when we reassured them that their quarantine wouldn’t result in large fines cemented our resolve that now is the time to make this change permanent. 

So what does the Library’s switch to “fine free” mean to you? It means that we want to welcome you—or welcome you back—to the Library! If you don’t have a current card, you can sign up for a new one at If you think you have outstanding fines or lost items on your Library account, give us a call and we’ll help you figure it out.

If you have used your overdue fines as your extra contribution to the Library, there are plenty of ways to continue your support! The Ames Public Library Friends Foundation accepts donations in any amount to enhance the Library’s collections, programs, and services. You can donate online or at the donation box in the lobby (when it reopens); Feel free to use it to appease any feelings of guilt about overdue items or to unload those coins from your purse or pockets!