Library amnesty a foreshadowing

01/09/2019

As a stack of overdue books looms like Mt. Doom on a shelf, the mere thought of fines can keep people away from the library. But until Jan. 21, patrons of the Marin County Free Library system can erase outstanding balances by returning late materials. The initiative, which began last year during the same time, reflects a nationwide trend to ease the burden of fines in vulnerable communities. 

“Fines aren’t designed to punish people,” Sarah Jones, director of the library system, pointed out. “They’re designed to get people to bring back materials.” 

It is not unusual for libraries to offer an amnesty program around the Christmas season as a thank-you to their communities, Ms. Jones said. Last year, the San Francisco Library’s fine forgiveness program brought in nearly 700,000 items. The total value of all overdue items returned—one of which was 100 years past due—was nearly $236,000. 

Fines help contribute to a library’s revenue stream, but they are rarely a driving factor; in Marin, late fees comprise a mere .005 percent of the free library’s budget. And the fines can come with hidden costs. Patrons, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, may decide to stay away from libraries when their late fees begin to stack up. 

Within the Marin system, fines for adults are typically 25 cents per day for overdue items, though materials available through a library consortium can be $1 per day. Fines max out at $6 per item, and if patrons owe more than $10 they are prevented from borrowing further until they pay their balance. 

Raemona Little Taylor, the library’s West Marin branch manager, reported positive feedback from patrons of all socioeconomic strata. “I think it removes a huge barrier for a lot of people, and the stigma. No one wants to come into a library and feel like they’re going to be chastised,” she said.

This year, an additional reason for Marin’s amnesty program was the closure of the Novato library, which is the busiest in the system. (The library is closed till Jan. 22 in order to install a new HVAC system.) “We knew that it would cause a lot of confusion,” Ms. Jones said. 

The partial or full elimination of library fines has caught on across the country. There is no data on how many libraries in the nation have done away with fines, but districts from California to Maryland have started to restructure their systems. Some have innovative solutions: In Los Angeles County, those under 21 can “read away” their fines, receiving a $5 credit toward late fees for every hour read inside the library. 

In 2015, Marin's free library moved to get rid of late fees for children’s and teen’s books. Although library staff realized they would lose some resources  by eliminating youth fines, Ms. Jones said they felt the move was necessary “because it provides equity across the county.” “For some, a $5 fine is no big deal, and for others it means they stay away from the library,” she said.

The same year, the San Rafael Library eliminated youth fees. “Generally speaking, library fines are seen by the public as a barrier to access, and removing them for children’s material helps to support literacy and education in the community,” Henry Bankhead, the library’s interim director, said. Mr. Bankhead said the library has not experienced a significant drop in revenue after it cut late fees for the materials. 

Fines are also expensive to collect. Before Ms. Jones came to Marin, she worked at the Carson City public library in Nevada, where she instituted an elimination of fines. “You’d be surprised to find out how much we spend on counting [fines],” she said. “There’s quite a large HR cost in just managing pretty large sums of money.” In Carson City, the library decided that purchasing sophisticated credit card machines to process fines would ultimately be more costly than eliminating the fines entirely.

The Marin system has a fairly consistent fine revenue, Ms. Jones said, around $80,000 a year—though that figure includes other things like payment for lost materials. And although $80,000 is a small drop in the library’s $17 million budget, Ms. Jones said it was still “a fair amount of money.” Should fines be eliminated entirely, she said, “that means there’s less to spend, and that has consequences.” 

For Ms. Little Taylor, the pros outweigh the cons. “We have an interest in connecting with the community and making sure that we aren’t creating barriers from engaging in library services and programs,” she said. “That’s the direction that libraries as a whole are moving in.”

Ms. Jones said that fee elimination in Marin was “on the horizon.” She plans to bring the issue to the Board of Supervisors in April in hopes of integrating the idea into the next budget year. 

One worry about fee elimination is that people will simply stop returning books. But libraries have found workarounds, including charges for lost materials and a lower checkout cap. Ms. Jones said that during her time in Carson City she did not see patrons abusing the fine-free system. 

“I’ve found, after doing this for a long time, that once a fine gets so high, [patrons] don’t care anymore, so it’s something they don’t pay attention to,” she said. “So not only do we not have that material, but we also lose users.”