Material recovery in the fine free era

Material recovery in the fine free era

Gentle Nudge® Material Recovery

Louisville Free Public Library: Navigating Blocked Patrons and Material Recovery Challenges in a Fine-Free Era

In the pursuit of greater accessibility and equity, the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL) embarked on a transformative journey, eliminating overdue fines for materials on July 1, 2021. This significant policy shift, aligning with the American Library Association’s 2019 resolution, was aimed at making library use more equitable for all users.

A large, urban library system with nearly half a million members across 17 branches, LFPL embraced this change, understanding its potential to break down barriers to service, especially for those most in need.

“We believe that access to a library and its collections is essential to equitable opportunity for a community,” LFPL Director Lee Burchfield told The Courier Journal in April 2021. “Our analysis shows that … the primary contributions of our overdue fines is to create a barrier to service to the people who probably need library services the most.”

The Challenge: Maintaining Accountability in a Fine-Free Landscape

While the transition to a fine-free model was met with positive reception, LFPL faced a new challenge. Despite the removal of overdue fines, LFPL found that many patrons struggled with returning materials on time or at all. This created two main issues:

  • More patrons were overdue and blocked from access after the internal LFPL contact process.
  • There was a large gap in material accessibility for other users with these items on hold.

Overall, the removal of fines was a huge success for the library, but the unintended consequences were too big to simply ignore. Like many other fine free libraries, they still needed help recovering materials.

A Collaborative Solution with Unique: Fine-Free Gentle Nudge®

LFPL sought a balanced approach to encourage material return without compromising patron goodwill. The solution came in partnering with Unique for their Fine Free Gentle Nudge® service.

This innovative service was designed to seamlessly bridge the gap, focusing on long-overdue materials and patrons who had not responded to the library’s standard processes. The Gentle Nudge® initiative starts where LFPL’s efforts end, employing calls, emails, and letters to encourage the return of materials without damaging patron relationships.

Fine Free Gentle Nudge

Our proven process evolved for fine free libraries

We took our flagship service and tailored it to modern libraries. The results speak for themselves.

The Gentle Nudge® in action

The Gentle Nudge® process begins where the normal process for the library ends. When the library has run out of tools to get patrons unblocked and materials returned, Unique comes in with a process of call, emails, and letters. Our process focuses on materials, without damaging patron goodwill toward the library.

As part of our implementation of the Gentle Nudge®, Unique helped the library with onboarding and training. As part of the training, Unique provided a certificate of completion to staff that they were able to submit as part of their state certification renewal.

In just 9 months of service, the LFPL has seen over 500 patrons regain full borrowing privileges that would have otherwise remained blocked. The new process has also seen 1,000 items worth $150,000 returned to circulation. Compared to what they were recovering from their own internal processes alone, Gentle Nudge represents an investment in both patrons and materials.

This is only the start – while LFPL began with patrons holding an account balance of $100 or more, they are aiming to lower the threshold to maximize materials returned to the library. In our work, data has shown that those with lower account balances return to the library at a higher rate. LFPL is starting on a track of proven success, both in number of patrons returned to good standing, and materials returned to circulation.

From the Library

In January 2024, LFPL sent an email out to all cardholders celebrating the success of the process. This is a marketing opportunity to their current patron base and stakeholders to show the fiscal responsibility of the library and as well as an opportunity to internally leverage the Unique process to encourage material recovery.

Email from Louisville Free Public Library to all cardholders

“Early last year, the Louisville Free Public Library contracted with Indiana-based Unique Management Services to assist in the recovery of long overdue library items. That effort has been hugely successful – resulting in thousands of items being returned to our shelves and made available for others to check out!

While LFPL is a fine-free library system, we still charge replacement fees for items when they are not returned. Unique partners exclusively with libraries across the country to help recover these overdue materials. Their approach is to remind patrons—through a series of emails, then phone calls—of overdue materials or outstanding balances. Unique DOES NOT accept payments. They will instead direct patrons to contact the Library.

This email is being sent to ALL cardholders and is simply to inform you of LFPL’s continued efforts to recover overdue materials. It is not intended to inform you of your current account status.  If you have questions about your account, you can check it online at (click on My Account – located above the search bar), or call (502) 574-1611 during regular library hours.

Thank you for using the library.”

Set up for Success

The goal of material recovery is to give patrons a path to clearing their account and being able to use the library again. The Gentle Nudge® is not only there to return materials to circulation, but also return users to the library. We have seen that over 75% of patrons return to active users of the library after they are part of the material recovery process. These patrons are part of the library community and deserve to be treated with respect.

LFPL is just the most recent library that has found the benefits of material recovery. Our work has freed up thousands of patrons and millions of materials to be used again by patrons.

By starting with Gentle Nudge®, LFPL already made a commitment to their patrons and stakeholders of the library. With the gradual reduction of minimum balance, more and more patrons will find themselves unblocked and ready to use the library again fully.

Learn more about Unique’s Gentle Nudge® process

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