Canberra's libraries join nationwide trend of scrapping fines for late books

Naaman Zhou
Photograph: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/Getty Images

Canberra’s libraries have abolished all late fines, as the Australian city becomes the latest to adopt a policy that has been shown to increase the return rate of books.

The Australian Capital Territory government announced on Thursday that it would no longer charge fines, and would forgive all existing ones, from 21 November. Instead, those with an overdue book will have their borrowing and computer use suspended until it is returned.

Parts of Sydney, Victoria and the entire state of Tasmania are among other Australian localities to completely abolish fines.

In 2017, the City of Sydney announced it would waive fines for four years, after a 12-month trial showed that three times the number of overdue books were returned.

Related: City of Sydney scraps library fines after trial shows reminders work better

In 2018, Tasmania became the first state to completely abolish fines, which resulted in 8,000 new members over the next year. In Victoria, the Yarra Plenty library system, which covers nine libraries, removed fines this year, and the City of Port Phillip has not had them for a decade.

In the ACT, more then 24,000 residents currently have a library debt, adding up to $1.8m.

The territory is moving its library records to a new computer system on 21 November and decided it was the right time to make the change.

Under the new system, borrowers may still have to pay a fine to replace a lost book. Books can be deemed lost if they are overdue for four weeks.

Chris Steel, the ACT’s city services minister, said the response to the move had been “hugely positive”.

“I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the response,” he told Guardian Australia. “This is a trend around the world because it makes sense. It’s a win-win.”

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Steel said that the move would remove barriers to access to libraries, especially among low-income families.

“We know that a majority of people who have library fines never come back and use our libraries,” he said. “We wanted to try and address the issue, the barrier that stopped people.

“We’ve seen from other cities – around the world and also around Australia – that when library fines were abolished there was an increase in membership. In New York there was a 10% increase in children returning to libraries. That’s the cohort we want, as well as low-income families.

“Families have been commenting on social media saying this is actually a cost of living issue. Particularly when they have a couple of kids who are borrowing quite a few items, and they are not as organised as they would like to be. They have accrued quite a debt.”

He also added that effectively fines were abolished as of Thursday.

“We won’t be charging any new fines,” he said. “We’re not the first and we hope other cities will take up this measure.”

The largest fine ever paid to ACT libraries was $700.

Borrowers who currently have overdue items can either return or renew them. Items can only be renewed up to five times, unless they have already been reserved.

However, if borrowers have already paid late fines or lost book fines, these cannot be refunded. People who have paid for a lost item, but then found it, can keep the item.