Most R.I. public libraries don’t charge fines. What’s up with the holdouts ?

How much do public libraries make in overdue fines? Poring over data collected by the State’s Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS) for fiscal year 2022: not much.

By: - April 10, 2023 9:29 am

Aradhana Mehta, a library assistant at Bristol’s Rogers Free Library, says the library stopped charging overdue fines decades ago. (Photo by Alexander Castro/Rhode Island Current)

In the denouement of the Obama presidency, the then-Commander-in-Chief proposed the Leaders Library Card Challenge. The nation’s mayors, superintendents and librarians were issued a simple task: make sure every kid has an active library card.

That proved easier said than done at Cranston Public Library: “We saw that there were actually a lot of students — 2,200 — that were blocked because of overdue fines,” said the library’s director, Ed Garcia.

So the Cranston libraries waived about $3,000 in fines, before eliminating them on kids’ books entirely in 2018. By 2020, “99 percent” of the collection was unshackled from overdue fines, Garcia said.  

Equity and access are the big ideas behind a statewide movement to eliminate library fines. Of the 49 members in the Ocean State Libraries (OSL) consortium, roughly 86% now label themselves fine free. 

Among the majority is George Hail Library in Warren, which went sans fines in November 2022 amid  diminishing returns and an automatic renewal system that makes overdue books less likely.  

“We realized that it was high time we followed suit,” wrote Director Chris Matos in an email. “Some of our patrons who were feeling the ‘shame’ of not having returned their books felt compelled to and so we actually were able to retrieve some items that were long overdue.”

Moralizing arguments about instilling responsibility dominated the fines conversation for years, but as Adrienne Girard, director of East Greenwich Free Library, put it: “The reason people were charged fines was to get our materials back. We get our item back, and that’s all we really want.”

Ed Garcia is the library director at Cranston Public Library, which eliminating overdue fines on kids’ books entirely in 2018. By 2020, nearly the entire the collection was unshackled from overdue fines. (Photo by Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Technically, no library is itself fine free; their items are. This is why some of the state’s libraries that bill themselves as “fine free” continue to charge for certain overdue items. Fines on books, both children’s and adults’, are largely gone. What remains subject to fines are generally items with shorter lending periods, greater value and higher demand: museum passes, hardware like Kindles, or, in North Kingstown, even a telescope.

The reason people were charged fines was to get our materials back. We get our item back, and that’s all we really want.

– Adrienne Girard, director of East Greenwich Free Library

OSL may seem like an overseer of library policy, but it’s really “a technology organization,” said Stephen Spohn, the consortium’s executive director. “We don’t track everything about our member libraries, only the notes that we need to serve them.”

The consortium does have one barricade to deploy on behalf of its members: Library cards are blocked from checking out additional items if they owe $10 or more in fines, or if they have books more than a week overdue. Spohn confirmed that this policy “is consistent across the system” of the OSL catalog. 

Speaking from experience: It’s true that delinquent borrowers aren’t pursued, but they aren’t enabled either. I’m known to order too many volumes of a manga I don’t read and then return well past the due date. Logging onto my OSL account in March, I found two books marked with some scarlet letters: “FINE,” read the status column. I had accrued $6.60 on overdue copies of “Dragon Ball” loaned from Greenville and Woonsocket. My card was banned.     

And then there were seven

It took some phone calls to determine that seven libraries in Rhode Island remain debt collectors.  Middletown Public Library, Portsmouth Free Public Library, Woonsocket Harris Public Library, Harrisville’s Jesse M. Smith Library and Warwick’s Pontiac Free Library all confirmed they still charge overdue fines. Greenville Public Library and Adams Public Library confirmed the same via email.

Adams, however, only fines adults’ materials, not kids’ books. The revolt often begins in the children’s section, as it did in Cranston. But with six branches and an operating revenue of $3.8 million in 2022, the municipally-structured Cranston is one of the state’s biggest and wealthiest libraries.  

Things are different in Greenville, where the public library’s director Dorothy J. Swain explained the fine rationale via email. While Swain stressed the library is “very amicable” to work out payment plans or even occasionally waive fines for those having difficulty paying fines, its board of trustees still saw a need for overdue charges.

“They felt there would be no incentive to return the materials,” Swain said. “They also felt that as a nonprofit public library this could affect our revenue stream.” 

Fines, Garcia noted, have “unfortunately…been built into library budgets for decades and decades and decades.” But he also acknowledged that most of the revenue earmarked from fines would’ve never actually arrived. 

Our board determined that they did not want the library to be fine free. They felt there would be no incentive to return the materials. They also felt that as a non-rofit public library this could affect our revenue stream.

– Dorothy J. Swain, director of Greenville Public Library

So how much do Rhode Island public libraries make in overdue fines? Poring over data collected by the State’s Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS) for fiscal year 2022: not much. 

Take the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library, which listed only “fines and fees” in the “Other” section of its operating revenue. This $7,328 windfall comprised but 1% of its operating revenue.

Destiny Boyce, a shelver at the Cranston Public Library, tends to the shelves at the library which is fine-free on almost the entire collection.
(Photo by Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Canned goods accepted 

There are no immediate correlations between a library’s operating revenue and its fine-free status. The two libraries with the lowest revenue are both fine-free. Nor does municipal status encourage emancipation: Woonsocket and Harrisville both have municipal libraries that continue to charge fines. So does Middletown, but their library cheerfully confirmed that canned goods can be offered in exchange for overdue fines. 

Garcia said eliminating fines involves “removing barriers but predicating part of your budget on people’s bad behavior.”

Speaking of bad behavior: When I returned my $6 worth of overdue manga to my home library Rogers Free in Bristol, I paid nothing.  

Providence Community Libraries director Cheryl Space explained that fine free libraries will quietly collect and return overdue books loaned from other libraries, but “no money changes hands,” she said. “[Fines] are never given back to the owning library. The only money that actually gets exchanged is if there’s a lost material.”

Garcia thought Rogers Free Library had forsaken fines “maybe 15 years ago.” No one currently at Rogers Free has been working there that long, but Library Assistant Aradhana Mehta has been there long enough to confirm that the library’s fine policies have been in place for decades. Having done some investigating herself, Mehta arrived for an interview with a handwritten note that read “Ned Comstock.” 

Comstock was the director of Rogers Free from 1973 to 1988 and, per a 1985 article in the Bristol Phoenix, “not a believer in fines.” An understatement, maybe: the same article describes one Bristol resident who had come in to return a book his sister had checked out 72 years earlier in 1913. In a move arguably way ahead of its time, Comstock waived the entire debt.  

“I agreed readily that $562.50 was too big a fine,” Comstock was quoted. 

A 2003 Phoenix article confirms that Comstock annihilated fines on kids’ books in his tenure, with coworker Claudine Fales quoted: “We wanted children…to read and be happy here. And to say, you owe 50 cents, that’s not right.”

Chatting in the children’s room at Rogers Free, Mehta said the library only charges for one thing now: printing. A few pennies to print your thoughts? Sounds fair. But a penny for someone’s else’s thoughts? One must admit the idea of not paying anything at all is too brilliant to dismiss.


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Alexander Castro
Alexander Castro

Alexander Castro is a writer, journalist and curator who often covers and critiques arts and culture. In 2022, Castro joined the Visual Arts department at Roger Williams University as an adjunct professor and exhibitions director.