85% of Massachusetts Public Libraries Are Fine Free


December 13, 2023
Celeste Bruno
Communications Director

Many of the Commonwealth’s public libraries have joined the growing national trend to eliminate fines on overdue materials. Of the 367 public libraries in Massachusetts, 313, or 85%, are fine free (View map). “The mission of libraries is to provide equitable access to services,” said James Lonergan, Director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). “Fines may discourage people from using libraries and can disproportionately affect those who are economically challenged. Going fine free is often beneficial for libraries and for the people they serve.”

Traditionally, overdue fines have been used as a way to encourage people to return borrowed items on time, but research indicates that fines do not consistently ensure the return of library materials. In fact, for some libraries, eliminating fines has increased the book return rate.  Fines are also a barrier to using the library. A study from Colorado State Library (CSL) found that, “along with transportation and scheduling issues, respondents to the survey identified library fines as a one of the “things that ‘get in the way’ of their use of the library.” Eliminating barriers to usage was one of the reasons Boston Public Library went fine free.  At the time, about 42,000 of the library's 391,300 cardholders had fines on their accounts and many of those cardholders lived in the city's most economically challenged neighborhoods. Worcester Public Library, Jones Library in Amherst, and The Robbins Library in Arlington all cited increasing access to the library as central in their decision to go fine free. Most fine free libraries still charge cardholders for materials that are not returned or are lost.

Libraries that still collect fines say that they rely on the revenue from fines to support their budgets. Yet, some of the libraries that have gone fine free find that the cost of staff time to process fines may be more than the amount of fines collected. Additionally, the increase in eBook usage, which automatically returns items and therefore incurs no fees, has reduced revenue from overdue fines as well. Research from other states also indicates that in many cases, fines account for only about 1% on average of a public library’s total operating budget.

The CW MARS Automated Network, made up of 161 member libraries, voted to make the network fine free in 2022, meaning that members need to work towards being fine free and that any new library that joins the consortium cannot charge overdue fines on circulating items. Currently over 91% of CW MARS libraries are fine free. 

"CW MARS libraries recognize that overdue fines present an economic barrier to the access of library materials and can be a form of social inequity,” said Jeanette Lundgren, CW MARS Executive Director. “Fines often disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and can be a barrier for access to the individuals who may need library services the most. Reaching 90% fine free was a momentous moment in the consortium's history and it was inspiring to see how our libraries worked together to achieve this strategic milestone."

About MBLC

The Board of Library Commissioners ( is the agency of state government with the statutory authority and responsibility to organize, develop, coordinate and improve library services throughout the Commonwealth. The Board advises municipalities and library trustees on the operation and maintenance of public libraries, including construction and renovation. It administers state and federal grant programs for libraries and promotes cooperation among all types of libraries through regional library systems and automated resource sharing. It also works to ensure that all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of their geographic location, social or economic status, age, level of physical or intellectual ability or cultural background, have access to essential new electronic information technologies and significant electronic databases.