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Fairfax County libraries see uptick in returns after most fines eliminated

Fairfax County Public Library eliminated overdue fines, saying they discouraged patrons from returning (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

There have been no headline-making returns of books 50 years overdue, but Fairfax County Public Library is nonetheless seeing some encouraging trends after eliminating fines on Jan. 1.

The library system saw a 2 to 3 percentage point uptick in the amount of materials returned versus checked out in January and February of this year compared to those same months in 2020, according to data shared by FCPL.

This February, patrons returned 314,648 physical materials and checked out 300,836 materials. In February 2020, there were 426,352 returns and 419,642 checkouts. That makes a 3 percentage point difference in the amount of materials returned year over year.

January of both years saw library patrons check out more materials than they returned, with a return rate of 96% in 2020 and 98% this year.

Fairfax County Public Library materials checked out and returned in January and February 2020 and 2022 (courtesy FCPL)

The data only includes physical materials, such as paper books and DVDs, since digital materials like ebooks are automatically returned, FCPL spokesperson Erin Julius noted.

The library offered 2020 as a comparison, because patrons were largely limited to online and curbside pickup services due to the COVID-19 pandemic during the first half of 2021. FCPL didn’t resume indoor services until late March 2021, and capacity limits remained in place until June.

“Of course, [the] last two years have been so unusual for all organizations and people’s habits have changed so much that comparing January and February 2022 to previous years is not apples to apples,” Julius said.

The FCPL Board of Trustees approved its new policy eliminating fines for most overdue materials and resetting already accrued penalties on Dec. 8.

The vote came after a committee created by the board found that fines are ineffective at motivating people to return overdue materials and instead discourage individuals from using library services — a conclusion that has led library systems across the country to scrap late fees.

FCPL does still charge daily late fees for some materials, including Chromebooks and interlibrary loans, and patrons are billed the replacement costs for materials that are more than 35 days past their due date, at which point they’re considered lost.

While the new policy has only been in place for a couple of months, and more detailed data would require reports from vendors, Julius says library patrons have been decidedly supportive of the county’s move away from fines.

“We’ve had really positive responses from library users about our shift away from overdue fines and we thank everyone for continuing to return their library materials promptly so that others may enjoy them,” Julius said.

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