Monetary service charges assessed to a library user for returning checked out materials after their due date.
Most libraries charge a small fee for each day (or hour) that a circulating item is kept past its due date to encourage borrowers to return materials promptly. Fines may vary according to the format of the material checked out. Usually, all items (except reserves) may be renewed on or before the due date for an additional checkout period unless a hold has been placed by another borrower.
The general purpose of a late fee is one of deterrence. Librarians want users to return checked out materials on time in fairness to other users who may need them. Some libraries even offer amnesty periods during which late books can be returned without incurring fines.
Like posted speed limits, many libraries have an often unadvertised grace period after the "official" due date, during which the materials can still be returned without incurring a fine.
Late fees can be higher for certain items. For example, items on 2-hour reserve at an academic library can accumulate late fees of a dollar per hour. Some libraries have trivial late fines, such as a penny a day, while for others collected late fees are a significant part of their operating revenue (thus calling in to question the general purpose of the fines as defined above -- perhaps such libraries should consider the case of Macks Creek).
There are frequent human-interest stories on library books returned or discovered that were way overdue. LISNews has a topic devoted to these stories.
A book returned 20 years late will not have a $50,000 late fee. This is something that most popular media stories misrepresent. After a certain time past the due date, the item is presumed lost or stolen, and the late fees stop accumulating. However replacement costs and lost item processing fees are then usually added to the total charges. If lost books are returned, these extra fees may be negotiated. There is at times a fair amount of haggling involved regarding library charges and services in general.
Many banks offer automatic overdraft protection to account holders with enough funds to cover a potentially bounced check in a different account. For those customers without overdraft protection in place, the banks appear happy enough to bounce the check and assess the maximum fee allowed by law for doing so.
This raises the question, in an age of OPACs with such features as patron-initiated recalls, holds, and renewals, why can't overdue items that aren't on hold for another user be automatically renewed? Furthermore, why have due dates at all for such items?
Many libraries send out automated reminder notices to patrons with materials checked out approaching or past their due dates, but automatic renewals is not a service offered by any major library catalog software vendor.
Perhaps libraries could even take a page from a Blockbuster model and compete more directly with bookstores: have no late fees, but after a certain date, the overdue item is automatically billed to the user as a purchase.
See also: Claims returned