Chicago Public Library replaces overdue fines with subtle guilt trips

Chicago Public Library replaces overdue fines with subtle guilt trips

A few weeks ago, the Chicago Public Library announced they were getting rid of overdue fees. The initiative came from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office as a way to remove barriers for all Chicagoans to use their local CPL branch.

Overall, I think the idea makes a lot of sense. The same $10 overdue fee carries a different weight for people with varying income levels. Here’s a look at some of the statistics via the Chicago Public Library website on how overdue fines impact different neighborhoods.

“CPL data indicates the disproportionate impact late fines have on different communities in the city, with 1 in 3 patrons in CPL’s South District (below 59th Street) currently unable to check out items because they owe $10 or more in fines and fees. In CPL’s North District, from North Avenue to Howard Street, this number drops to 1 in 6. Furthermore, many of the blocked users are those who can benefit most from the resources at Chicago Public Library—1 in 5 suspended library cards citywide belong to children under 14.”

But I kept reading these articles with a skeptical eye. Alright, what’s the catch? What am I missing? When has any government ever just waived $875,000 of annual revenue out of goodwill? There has to be something else going on here…

And that’s when I received my first “friendlier” notification from the library.

Dear Christopher R O’Brien, We have renewed the following titles for you. 

It was then when I realized the Chicago Public Library had replaced overdue fines with subtle guilt trips.


It starts by using my full name. Christopher. Nine times out of ten, when my Mom used “Christopher” rather than “Chris,” I had definitely done something wrong.

As you can see above, I have 13 free renewals remaining (unless another person requests the book). With 13 left, things are still pretty cordial. The email only hinted at using my middle name. But once I’m down to the single digits, I expect to receive a full “Christopher Robert.” And that’s never a good sign…

With five renewals to go, I’ve heard they tag in the trash-talking librarian. He’s like Larry Bird or Gary Payton on the basketball court. Just constantly making little quips.

Hey, Christopher Robin, get your Winnie the Pooh ass back in here and return those books, alright? “Molto gusto: Easy Italian cooking?” Who are you kidding? You’re a Prego in the microwave kinda guy. Bring it back.

(for three more trash-talking librarian bits, scroll to the end of the article) 

But even more powerful than the full name or the trash-talking librarian is that next line. We have renewed the following titles for you. That sends a guilty chill down my spine.

Don’t worry, Christopher, just take your time. I mean, it’d be great if you brought it back, but hey, it’s cool. We’ll just keep renewing these titles on your behalf. I mean, Unabridged Bookstore is just a couple of blocks away from your condo, you could always buy the books if you needed more time. But hey, seriously, it’s cool. We can just keep renewing them for you. Not like we’re in a big city or anything…  

“Renewing this for you” is like when you did something wrong and your parents made you an epic pancake and bacon breakfast the next morning. You had no choice but to ground yourself.

Never underestimate the monetary power of a subtle guilt trip either. Examples: The valet driver. The guy that hands you a paper towel in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant. The Salvation Army worker getting frostbite on Michigan Avenue. The tip jar at an ice cream shop. The phrase “suggested donation.” These subtle guilt trips work and I wonder if that’s the overall plan for replacing the $875,000 in late fees. I wonder if CPL will send out annual holiday recap cards.

“Happy Holidays, Christopher! Just want to run back your stats for the year. We renewed 20 books for you, a total of 150 times. You rented Fast & Furious 2 & 3 on DVD and we showed no judgement whatsoever. Thank you for using the library so much in 2019. We have a suggested end-of-year donation of $20, but no pressure. May 2020 be a great year of renewal for you!

P.S. this card cost us $3.50.” 

And the thing is, I think I would actually make an end-of-year donation if I were asked for one. I’m old school and a big fan of the library. We’re spoiled in Chicago when it comes to the CPL. The Harold Washington, the CPL branch in Chinatown, T.B. Blackstone Memorial Library, these are incredible buildings. Could go toe-to-toe (book-to-book?) with any library in the world. And I’m excited to see the remodeled Merlo branch next year in Lakeview (featured image for this story).

I joked about the subtle guilt trips and having a trash-talking librarian, but I truly believe waiving the fees was a great idea. The library should always be a place where you can learn and read things for free. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars (and apartment/condo space) over the last seven years by checking out books instead of buying each one. Probably another $200 or so by printing things off at the library rather than paying the absurd prices at a FedEx Office Print shop.

Nickle and diming people on library books feels like it should be a last resort for government revenue. And this new approach by CPL still respects when someone else requests the book, it doesn’t allow me to keep renewing, so there are still some checks in place. When the libraries did similar short-term amnesty programs in the past, like 2016, it resulted in “over 15,000 new patrons and patrons returning their cards to good standing and also included a return of over $800,000 of CPL material.” The idea works. 

So, kudos to Mayor Lightfoot. And kudos to the Chicago Public Library.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go return a couple of books.

Bonus: Three more Trash-Talking Librarian Bits

Hey, Lord of the Rings, 2005 called and wants their DVDs back.

War and Peace? Just bring it back. 

How to Win Friends and Influence People? You could start by bringing the book back

Thank you for stopping by the blog. Hey – speaking of Long Overdue things, the new publishing/bookstore site I’ve been working on called Long Overdue Books is officially up and running. It’s a place where writers can publish their books one chapter at a time, building an audience, while seeking help with the editing or publishing process. If you ever need help with your book, email me at or connect on LinkedIn.  

To subscribe to Medium Rare via email, just enter your email address in the box below. See you next week for a post about the new movement to move Halloween to a Saturday rather than October 31st. The blog poses the question: Is October 31st about to be demoted? 

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