October 16, 2021
Northern Ireland libraries “amnesty” sees 87,000 overdue fines wiped
by Tom Clayton
Earlier this week, readers in Northern Ireland were offered a remarkable reprieve from overdue library fines, with over 87,000 wiped from the Libraries NI system.
As reported in The Belfast Telegraph and elsewhere, the amnesty came into effect on October 11th. It is hoped that the measure, which has been successfully implemented in other countries, will help people to “reconnect with libraries” after the Covid-19 pandemic forced their closure for much of 2020.
The Belfast Telegraph report carries a quote from Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, who welcomed the move:
As we continue to live with Covid, it is important that our local libraries are open for everyone to use and that there are no access barriers. That is why I am delighted that Libraries NI has reviewed its policy on overdue actions with the result that charges will be removed… Fines, particularly where they accumulate over time, are more likely to impact vulnerable people, including those on lower incomes. This positive move paves the way for customers who have been anxious about overdue fines to return to libraries and avail of the many services they provide.
Jim O’Hagan, Libraries NI Chief Executive, also spoke to the Telegraph, reminding readers their books had been automatically renewed while the country’s libraries were shut:
As part of returning to a more normal way of life in wider society, we are encouraging our customers to come back into libraries and for anyone who still has library books at home, to please return them for someone else to enjoy, safe in the knowledge there will be no overdue fines attached to their account.
Northern Ireland is just the latest authority or community to take a “fines-free” approach which, according to a 2021 article from Public Libraries News, “is gaining ground throughout at least the English-speaking library world.” The report lists 25 UK councils or authorities which have gone fine-free in recent years; the Republic of Ireland went entirely fine-free in 2019, and the USA, Canada and Australia are increasingly adopting the policy.
The PLN report lists the pros and cons of fines-free, noting that “a fine is a bad experience and can turn a user of a library into a non-user,” while also contending that “chief librarians [in the UK] may privately agree that fines serve little purpose and put people off but the service cannot find an alternate way to earn the tens of thousands of pounds per year they bring in.”
In the short term, however, libraries need people through their doors – surely it makes sense to remove as many barriers as possible to ensure footfall? As the world cautiously returns to a “new normal”, we must not neglect the hallmarks of the old one. Many have given up old habits or routines, but a regular library remains a must—for everyone’s sake.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.