A lot of shamed book nerds returned to Denver libraries after late fees were waived

But some customers are dealing with a collections agency.
4 min. read
Books in the new library in Montbello High School’s old building.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The Denver Public Library's year-old policy to forgive late fees has meant greater access to its collection, but some continue to lose privileges and face a collections agency when they fail to return city-owned materials.

Since the Hancock administration did away with late fees and absolved most blocked customers in January 2019, more than 104,000 people returned to the system, according to library officials. That means 36 percent of tardy book and DVD returners were able to come back and check stuff out -- without their tails between their legs.

"One of the themes that we had heard over the years when we'd encounter customers ... was a little shrug of shame people would get when you tell them you work for the library," said Jennifer Hoffman, manager of books and borrowing. "And they say, 'Oh, I have overdue fines' and they have an embarrassment about even coming in. We hope that that that's not so much the message that resonates with people anymore."

Hoffman said the data makes it clear that the fines represented a barrier to people, particularly those who don't have a lot of money. Denver's policy change followed similar changes in library systems around the country meant to make learning and entertainment more egalitarian. The data indicates it's working, Hoffman said.

Mary Olfdford was heading into a bustling Schlessman Family Branch Library in Lowry. She loved the idea of eliminating late fines "because people are busy," she said. But she also worried it's made waiting lists longer for popular books.

"Sometimes if I order something and it comes in a little later because somebody was too busy to bring it in, it could kind of slow down that process, you know what I mean?"

But her anecdotal experience doesn't reflect the systemwide reality. Waitlist times actually fell by about 1 percent after the libraries waved late fees, the Collection Development Department found.

But city libraries don't let everyone off the hook, and librarians say that's necessary.

People who don't return books, DVDs, or other materials can't just keep borrowing stuff and not returning it because then it becomes something other than borrowing.

After 28 days, librarians consider overdue items lost. That's when the person who checked out the item is charged the cost of replacing it. If the customer doesn't return it or pay up after the 56th day, the library refers the account to a collections firm and charges the customer $10 more for the cost of that service. The agency does not report people's names to credit bureaus and has not done so since 2015.

The collections agency piece is not new. Library officials referred almost 2,300 people to collections in 2018, which was fewer than 1 percent of their customers. That number was down slightly in 2019.

Denverite found Tom Salva walking to his bike outside of the Schlessman branch, eating some Twizzlers and stuffing newly borrowed DVDs into his backpack. He said he goes to the library once a week.

"That doesn't even make sense to me," said Salva, who added that he is a punctual library user. "Well, I'm gonna start making sure I return them now!"

While Hoffman sees how sending accounts to collections seems counter to the library's equity goals, the penalty just reinforces how libraries work.

"You borrow something, you bring it back for others to use, and you thereby keep borrowing," Hoffman said. "So really the only barrier to access is if you just don't bring something back in, and libraries work when people bring the thing back."

Correction: This article was updated to correct an error by the reporter. The library's collection agency does not refer people's names to credit bureaus and has not done so since 2015. Therefore, credit scores will not be affected as previously reported.

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