Library users are handing over hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for failing to return books on time.

Over the last five years Sussex’s councils and universities have been paid more than £3 million by customers who had items overdue.

The figures, obtained by The Argus under the Freedom of Information Act, show that so far this year borrowers have notched up fines of £560,258.68 from public libraries and those of the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex.

David Smith, Brighton and Hove City Council’s cabinet member responsible for libraries, said: “We don't like any fines at all but if we have to fine people we will.

“The fine money helps to cover loss of books and administration costs. More and more people are renewing their books online so they're going to be avoiding the unnecessary fines – that seems to be the trend.”

To combat the problem of mounting fines, the city's libraries have started to cap debts at £6 per item so they do not grow to massive sums.

The Tory councillor added: “It means in these difficult economic times the fines can't accumulate on people.”

The 36 libraries across West Sussex have raked in the most funds from forgetful readers, boosting the county council’s income by almost £1.4 million since 2004.

Brad Watson, West Sussex County Council's cabinet member for libraries, said: “We're significantly reducing the volume of library fines across West Sussex each year. We've got a 24-hour library renewal service so borrowers can renew their library books whenever they want.

“However, people don't always do the best for themselves. It is hard for people to remember to take their library books back when they've got other things on their minds. I know I've been guilty of forgetting to get my books back on time.”

A spokesman for East Sussex County Council said: “We haven't increased the rates for fines - at 17p per day for overdue books and audio tapes - since 2006.

“We spend about £1.2 million on new library stock each year and any money we receive from fines goes back into the overall library budget.”