Effective January 1, the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey (SCLSNJ), one of only four libraries in New Jersey named a four-star Library by Library Journal Index of Public Library Service in 2021, will join the hundreds of libraries nationwide that have eliminated fines for overdue materials. The transition to a fines-free model aims to facilitate borrowing and to remove obstacles to community members’ access to the Library System’s materials and services.

“It is a delight to join major libraries in ending the practice of charging late fees,” said Brian Auger, county library administrator. “Studies indicate, and our own pandemic experience confirms, that while having late fees has minimal effect on the return of books, it has a profound, chilling effect on borrowing, especially for children and economically challenged households. Our national ranking underscores SCLSNJ’s reputation for service excellence. Our staff is among the very best in the profession, and this recognizes that our Library, and our County, are constantly striving to provide the very best services to residents – and the removal of late fees is just our next step towards cultivating excellence.” 

The most recent U.S. Census data show that 5.4 percent of Somerset County residents are living in poverty. The most heavily impacted areas are North Plainfield (13 percent), Manville (11.1 percent), Bound Brook (8.1 percent), and Somerville (6.7 percent), all areas served by the Library System. 

“This fines free initiative is about removing barriers to all the opportunities offered by our star-rated Library System,” said Nancy Stoll, who was holding the library commission chair during the time of the historic vote. “However, I do think it is important to note that going fines free does not mean we are advocating for moving towards a responsibility free attitude. It is still imperative that Library users return items in a timely manner so that our entire community can enjoy the System’s collections.” 

“Equitable access to information is the core of public library service,” said Christal Blue, branch manager. “The elimination of late fines removes a barrier to service that front-line library staff often see, families who limit the check-out of materials or avoid coming to the library out of fear of late fine debt. The elimination of late fines will create a positive and welcoming experience for community members of all ages to access information and explore our collections.”

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Resolution on Monetary Library Fines as a Form of Social Inequity, states that “there is mounting evidence that indicates eliminating fines increases library card adoption and library usage.”

Library systems that have made the transition to a fines free model have reported both the return of customers who had fine debt and an overall increase in branch visits.

“SCLSNJ has a history of advancing reforms that benefit Library customers,” said Christopher Korenowsky, director of public services. “We could not be more delighted to eliminate overdue fines on most materials to ensure equal access across the county for all residents to continue this tradition.” 

As a result of the pandemic, the Library System suspended fines in March 2020. SCLSNJ staff is working on updating customers’ accounts to remove any overdue fines for items that have been returned, but were considered late when they came back to the Library.

“We are excited to give Library customers a clean slate on overdue fines that they may still have from the past,” said Lynn Hoffman, director of operations. “The main thing to remember is that we want our materials utilizedthat’s what they’re for. We ask that materials are brought back in a timely manner, so that we can share them with someone else.”

Exceptions to the fines free initiative are Cultural Adventure Passes, which will still have a $20 late fee per day, and interlibrary loan materials, which may result in a fee determined by the loaning library.

Customers will be charged for lost or damaged items; this long-standing policy will not be impacted by the new fines free initiative. Items will be considered lost several weeks past the due date.

For more information, contact Auger: bauger@sclibnj.org or (908) 458.8401