CLEVELAND — If you’ve ever had a library fine — or a lot of library fines — you know it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.
“I just feel it, I feel it in my soul," said one library patron.
“I remember all of the guilt I’ve had over my lifetime about fines,” said Seema Rao, a lifelong Cuyahoga County Public Library patron.
And the reasons, we know, run the gamut.
“I was pregnant and went to the hospital early, emergency c-section, and right after that COVID hit and everything was late…” said one library user.
“My fine confessional is what drove me to the Cuyahoga County Library,” explained George Carr. He was a young, broke grad student when a pile of audiobooks was stolen from his car, leading to hundreds of dollars in fines he just couldn’t afford to pay from another library system.
“I ended up thinking, I can’t live without a library,” Carr said. “That’s like a basic human need, you know?”
“I’d often forget, I was really busy, I have a lot of excuses for my behavior,” said Rao, laughing. She’s like so many of us - the guilt of racked-up fines keeping her from even showing her face to the librarians she grew up with. So much so, she made her then-boyfriend return overdue items for her.
“Apparently he liked me enough that he would do it but he’d get really anxious and upset and say, these women are judging me!” she said.
Well, he liked her enough that they’ve been married twenty years now, so all's well that ends well there.
Listen to four actual library fine confessional voicemail messages from Cuyahoga County Public Library patrons in the video player below. The names, numbers and emails have been redacted to protect the (now) innocent.
But now the Cuyahoga County Public Library is turning the page — celebrating its 100th anniversary by going “fine free.”
“What we recognized is that fines represent a financial barrier for people,” said communications director Hallie Rich. Parents get busy, kids misplace books, and racking up fees they can’t afford to pay means they weren’t able to use the library, which the system did not want.
In January, the library system waived $12.5 million in outstanding fines from more than 230,000 cardholders.
The vast majority of them had fines under $10, stretching back decades.
Rich told us while it may sound like a lot of money, the library only ever got about $200,000 a year in fines and fees, which is less than .2% of their nearly $90 million budget.
“Really, fines were a historical practice that public libraries everywhere employed as a way to incentivize people to bring material back to the library,” Rich explained.
Even though they’re going fine free — don’t think you can make off with things for good.
Here’s how the new system works:
Items that aren’t returned more than 21 days past the due date will be marked lost, and you’ll be charged a replacement fee.
But if you bring it back, that fee is cleared and you’re back to a clean slate.
And yes, the library even started a “fine confessional” for people to call in with their past sins as they start this new chapter.