Libraries in England and Wales are responding to the cost of living crisis by abolishing daily late fees for books and getting ready to become “warm banks” to help the vulnerable this winter.
A survey by Libraries Connected, a charity which represents public libraries, found that nearly 60% are actively considering taking part in a “warm bank” scheme, offering heat and shelter to vulnerable people, as another way to help during the cost of living crisis. However, just 4% of library leaders expect to receive any extra funding for this activity.
Meanwhile, the Guardian contacted 148 library authorities in England and Wales about library fines, charged every day that a book or other item issued by the library is overdue. Of the 79 libraries that responded, half are no longer charging adults late fees, in a bid to encourage people to use their services more and to help ease financial pressures. A majority of libraries in England and Wales do not charge children late fees.
All councils are still charging adults if they lose books or damage them beyond use, although some have discretionary measures in place which take into account people’s circumstances, as well as the age of the book and the reason any damage might have occurred.
Among the libraries which have recently stopped issuing late fees to adults are those run by Bradford council, which stopped charging from 1 July this year. However, it will still charge customers if they do not return items after two months. Councillor Sarah Ferriby, Bradford council’s executive member for healthy people and places, said the council hoped that “by dropping overdue charges it will allow more people to feel confident using the libraries and borrowing items and we hope to increase our membership and borrowing”.
“We know that our residents are facing lots of financial pressures and this is one thing that we can do to help our communities and in turn remove any of the barriers to using our libraries,” she added.
Julie Russell, service director for arts, culture and leisure at Wakefield council, which removed fines in 2020, said the council “looked at fines and charges and realised the measures were not effective in increasing book returns”. The authority also found fines “were creating barriers for some people, especially those on low incomes, to come and use our libraries”.
Isobel Hunter, chief executive of Libraries Connected, said that library services which had gone fine-free “have done so because they feel it can make their libraries more accessible, especially to vulnerable people and those on low incomes, and in some cases reduce admin costs”.
Among the first to stop issuing fines were Rutland county council in the East Midlands, Trafford borough council in Greater Manchester and Portsmouth city council.
A spokesman for Rutland, which went fine-free in 2016, said it had “found there was no impact on the availability of books, and it means that customers aren’t afraid to return their books if they go a bit overdue”.
Trafford and Portsmouth councils both stopped fining in 2018. A spokesman for Trafford council said the decision was made “to encourage residents to use their local libraries, as there is evidence that late-return charges are offputting” while Portsmouth said the move had “resulted in more positive engagement and crucially, increased accessibility by removing one of the key barriers to people using libraries”.
Of the library authorities that do still issue late fees, a number said they were reviewing their approach. York council said it would stop issuing late fees to adults within the next 12 months, based on “improved customer experience and the removal of any barriers that could be preventing people from borrowing books”. Coventry council, which reintroduced late fees for adults after suspending them during the pandemic, said removing fines “is currently under consideration, but the service has no firm plan to implement this as yet”. Merton in London recently stopped issuing late fees on children’s books, and said that “provided we can ensure a balanced budget then we would be very keen to remove all fines in the future”.
Hunter said that “some libraries have been reluctant to abolish fines for fear that users would hang on to books, causing stock circulation problems, but the evidence so far suggests this has not been the case”.
“Others are concerned about loss of income from fines, which couldn’t be easily offset by savings or new funding streams,” she continued. “Most libraries would like to go fine-free but many are waiting for evidence from other services before making the leap.”
Revenue streams for libraries will prove increasingly important in the coming months, as some step in to help vulnerable people during the first winter of the cost of living crisis. Libraries Connected’s snapshot survey of over 50 library leaders found that 61% plan to provide additional activities such as games and crafts to keep people amused for long periods of time, 43% plan to serve hot drinks, and 39% plan to install extra desks and comfortable chairs for those using libraries to keep warm.
Libraries Connected has called for dedicated funding for the whole winter so that library services can provide targeted help to those most in need.
Hunter said that “libraries are warm, free and accessible spaces” that are “ideally placed to help those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis this winter”.
“A relatively small investment across the library network could have a huge impact, allowing libraries to use their local knowledge and connections to provide targeted support at this critical time,” she added.