Check This Out: Many Libraries Will Forgive Your Fines for Overdue Books

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Even if you’ve racked up big library fines, your local library might be ready to shelve your debt.

When I was in my 20s, I checked out a book from the local public library, forgot to return it and eventually lost the book over the next few years. Afraid that I would owe hundreds of dollars in fines, I stayed away from the Kansas City, Missouri library for several years.

Meanwhile, I signed up for library cards at neighboring municipalities. Still, I yearned to check out books from the Kansas City Public Library close to my home. Finally, I screwed up the courage to go in, confess my sins and apply for a new library card.

“Don’t worry about it,” the librarian told me with a shrug as he handed me my shiny new piece of plastic. All that worry for nothing. Geez, I wish dealing with credit card debt was this easy. Going a decade without checking out books from your favorite library is one way to get out of paying a big fine. But there’s a better way.

Did you know that lots of libraries have fine forgiveness programs or amnesty days when you can bring overdue books back without paying a fine? For example, in 2017, the San Francisco Public Library took in 699,000 items from 10,000 patrons and forgave over $236,000 in fines over its six-week “We Want You Back” campaign.

It can pay off to check with your library about its fine-forgiveness policies. Here’s a sampling of the forgiveness programs out there.

Food for Fines

The Kansas City Public Library allows patrons to receive $1 off overdue fines for every canned or boxed food item donated to community food network Harvesters during Food for Fines week in October.

Your local library may be running a similar program. Keep an eye out for food donation bins and fliers on bulletin boards to see if you may be able to clear your debt while feeding the hungry.

No Questions Asked

The Miami-Dade Public Library System participates in Fine Forgiveness month throughout September. Just bring overdue books and other items to get your fines waived, “no questions asked.”

South Florida isn’t the only sunny state where libraries offer this program. Alameda County Library, based in Fremont, California, runs the same program in June, and it’s possible yours does, too.

It’s worth making a call or stopping at the front desk on your next visit to ask whether they run a Fine Forgiveness Month. Who knows? You may be the one to give them the idea.  

Summer of Library Love

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Speaking of the Alameda County Library, its staff celebrated their “Summer of Library Love” in June and July with the slogan “Love breaks barriers. Don’t let fines keep us apart.” Patrons got their fines waived and received a “groovy Summer of Library Love” sticker.

You may not have to wait until next summer to have your late fees waived. Check your library’s website to see if it has an amnesty program running this winter.

Dead Week and Finals Week

Even universities offer an olive branch to students with overdue books. North Dakota State University lets students return overdue books without fear of fines during “dead week” and finals week. “We at the library are merciful,” proclaims the university library’s fine-forgiveness page. They’re not pushovers, though, Students receive $1 off fines for every single food donation to a local food pantry or $5 off for every three items.

Most universities will hold your degree until their books are returned or their fees are paid. If it’s senior year and you have overdue books, speak to the librarian now.

Stuff Happens

In 2018, The Seattle Public Library expanded its Fresh Start fine forgiveness for teens program to include fees for lost items. “Things can happen,” said The Seattle Public Library Foundation CEO Jonna Ward in a news release about the expansion. “This program helps remove access barriers by giving young people a second chance.”

Public libraries around the country are easing up on fines for children’s books. Some allow young borrowers to read off their debt, chipping away $5.00 for every hour they read.

Since Seattle is forgiving fines for teens, you may be able to return your kids’ overdue books with less than a slap on the wrist. Make a call to your library’s front desk to ask if they’re doing something similar.

Bring Us Your Lost, Your Damaged, Your Overdue

Great River Regional Library in St. Cloud, Minnesota, accepts unreturned materials “no matter how long it’s been or if they’ve been damaged” during Fines Forgiveness week.

April 9 to 14 is National Library Week, when many libraries nationwide allow their patrons to quash their debts. You’ve got six months to gather up your overdue books and DVDs.

Blood Donations

You can’t get blood from a turnip, but you could get a pint or two from library patrons who owed money to the West Florida Public Libraries in 2016. That’s the year the library, which is in the Pensacola area, waived up to $50 in fines for patrons who donated blood during its blood drive.

Donating blood for fine forgiveness isn’t unique to West Florida. Libraries in Arizona and Connecticut also host blood drives through the American Red Cross.

Your library may not waive up to $50, but you won’t know unless you check it out.

Furry Forgiveness

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The Natchitoches Parish Library in Natchitoches, Louisiana, lets patrons donate cat and dog food to reduce fines by $2 per can and $5 per bag of food. Proceeds from “Kibbles and Books” in March went to the Natchitoches Humane Society.

Who knew that curling up with a good book every night was good for the forgiveness bone? When a bunch of fun-loving librarians put their heads together, there’s no telling what kind of wacky amnesty plan they’ll come up with next.

Librarians know that nobody’s perfect. Even President George Washington reportedly failed to return two books he checked out in 1789 from the New York Society Library. Washington’s overdue fine today would be around $300,000, according to a story about the presidential scofflaw in The Guardian.

So, don’t be like George Washington. Check out your local library’s website for your chance to live a fine-free life.

Deb Hipp is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. She learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb’s personal finance and credit articles have been published by Credit Karma, and HuffPost.