Some items, checked out decades ago, arrived with apologetic notes. “Enclosed are books that I have borrowed and kept in my house for 28-50 years! I am now 75 years old and these books have helped me through motherhood and my teaching career,” wrote one patron in an unsigned letter accompanying a box of books that arrived at the New York Public Library headquarters last fall. Delivered. “I’m sorry I lived with these books for so long. They became family.”
Three DVD copies of “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day,” a 2009 action film about Irish Catholic vigilantes in Boston with a 23 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, were returned to three libraries in three different boroughs.
When New York’s public library system announced last October that it would abolish all late fines, its goal was to get books and people back to the city’s nearly 100 branches and research centers after a year and a half of restricted hours and access.
The goal has been achieved: a wave of overdue material flooded in, accompanied by a healthy increase (between 9 and 15 percent, depending on the municipality) in return visitors.
More than 21,000 overdue or lost items have been returned in Manhattan since last fall, some so old they were no longer in the library system. About 51,000 items were returned in Brooklyn between October 6 and the end of February. And over 16,000 were returned to Queens. (Libraries still charge replacement fees for lost books.)
Some books were loaned out so long ago that they had to be returned to different addresses. In December, Flushing Library in Queens received a package containing “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” a novella by English novelist James Hilton, which had been checked out in July 1970 from an address now associated with a shopping plaza.
Billy Parrott, who manages the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in Midtown, the city’s largest circulating branch, said most overdue items are returned by mail or post rather than in person. This makes sense: late books can be a source of embarrassment. But librarians insist they don’t judge.
“We’re all about the books,” said Parrott, who has worked for the NYPL since 2004.
Before the policy change, New York City public libraries had charged back fines since the late 1800s. In the past, the rate was 1 cent per day. In 1954 it rose to 2 cents, then 5 cents in 1959. The system’s most recent rate was 25 cents per day in New York City (except Brooklyn, where it was 15 cents) for most materials, 10 cents per day for children’s clothing. books and a few dollars a day for DVDs. (Fines were lower for customers 65 and older and people with disabilities.)
After 30 days, a book is considered lost and a replacement fee will be charged. Anyone who owes $15 or more in fees would be blocked from checking out materials. In 2019, the system collected more than $3 million in late fees, according to Angela Montefinise, the library’s vice president of communications and marketing. †
When Tony Marx entered the library system as president in 2011, his mission, he said, was to eliminate fines for good. Amnesty programs were launched and a study was conducted in Brooklyn on the effectiveness of fines and the barriers customers face in returning books.
Then, in 2017, the Nashville Public Library abolished fines, and those in Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco followed suit two years later. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and fines were temporarily suspended in New York that Mr. Marx saw a clear opportunity to change the city system permanently.
“We learned that we could adjust our budget to do everything we needed to do and cover the lost revenue because we’re not in the revenue-generating business,” said Mr. Marx, a former president of Amherst College, in an interview. . “We are not in the fine collection. We’re in the encouragement-to-read-and-learn business, and we got in the way.”
For some city residents, the fines were particularly discouraging. Dominique Gomillion said she stopped visiting her library in Jamaica, Queens, after books she bought for her 8-year-old daughter, Ariel, left her with more than $50 in late fees — a significant amount for her as single parent .
“It’s just me and her,” Ms. Gomillion, a 32-year-old supervisor at UPS, said in a telephone interview. “There’s not really a lot of other support that we have.”
A few months ago, Mrs. Gomillion tried another library, the South Hollis branch, to see if she could clear her name.
“I was ready to put the books back,” she said. ‘And then Reggie, the librarian, came and said, ‘I’ve got something better for you.’ And then he said, ‘There are no more late fees.’”
Ms. Montefinise recalled a patron of a branch in Dongan Hills, Staten Island, who, upon returning some late children’s books, couldn’t believe the news and asked for a receipt to show his wife as proof.
“I can’t tell you how tense our customers are over these fines,” said Tienya Smith, a librarian who runs the Long Island City, Queens branch. “If we don’t have these fees, all that will be erased.”