December 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 6 »

Fine (Free) and Dandy: Libraries Say Good-bye to Overdue Charges

November 30, 2015
Kara Kohn, Plainfield Public Library District

In an episode of the TV series Seinfeld entitled “The Library,” Jerry receives a letter from the New York Public Library

about an overdue book from the early 1970s. He is positive the book was returned, and when he goes to the library to sort it out, the librarian tells him, “Oh, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller. Uh, this case has been turned over to our library investigation officer, Lt. Bookman.”

By the end of the episode, Jerry realizes he hadn’t actually returned the book, heads back to the library to pay the fine. When Jerry says that he hopes there are no hard feelings and asks what the problem is, Bookman responds, “What's my problem? Punks like you, that's my problem. And you better not screw up again Seinfeld, because if you do, I'll be all over you like a pit bull on a poodle.”

Of course, there is no library who employs a kick-butt-and-take-names-type like Lt. Bookman just to get their overdue materials returned. However, some of our patrons will think exactly that: one simple transgression such as returning materials a few days late leaves you embarrassed and financially culpable. Who would want to return to such a place?

There is no question that libraries need to be responsible for the collection, insure that holds are being filled in a timely manner, and act as good stewards of taxpayer dollars. But sometimes the overzealousness that we apply to materials is a detriment to customer service. Eliminating fines at libraries has been a lively topic on e-mail lists. We spoke with four libraries who took that fine-free plunge.

Start the conversation

Creating financial barriers to public library use is counterproductive and goes against the library’s mission to encourage more use, not less. So after a three-year discussion, Ela Area Public Library District Director Matt Womack approached his management staff, who enthusiastically supported the notion of eliminating fines, especially after opportunities to play devil’s advocate to weigh pros and cons.

Getting staff on board was only half the equation, as final approval for a change of this scope rested with the board of trustees. The board was first asked to consider the notion without making a decision and given ample time to discuss. When it was time to vote two years later, the board had already weighed both the positive and negative outcomes and were ready to come to a decision.

In another Chicago suburb, the former library director of Algonquin Area Public Library District approached Access Services Administrator Gary Christopherson to discuss the idea of a pilot program targeting a specific area of the collection. They agreed to give it a go as an initiative to “think differently about library service.” Although not all staff were in agreement and voiced concerns about patrons waiting too long to receive holds, the board of trustees, who never considered fines a money maker to begin with, approved the decision in March 2014.

A stand alone library, Vernon Area Public Library District, began the discussion back in 2006, but they weren’t ready to do away with fines quite yet. Then, when Algonquin found success in eliminating fines in 2014, it was time to revisit. “The idea fell in line with achieving one of our strategic goals of improving customer service. We felt that eliminating fines would reduce the number of negative interactions between patrons and staff, remove barriers to service allowing blocked patrons to come back to use the library, and foster goodwill in the community,” says Head of Circulation Stephen Territo. As a result, they wrote a new policy and drafted a recommendation to the board, which approved it unanimously.

How does a fine-free program actually work?

The biggest fear preventing more libraries from letting go of fines is that materials won’t come back in a timely matter and thus create longer wait periods for items with holds. The libraries who have implemented fine-free programs have proven that these fears are unfounded.

At Algonquin Area Public Library District, in lieu of fines, patrons are simply billed for the replacement cost of the item once the item is two weeks overdue, plus a processing fee and blocked from further checkouts. If and when the items are eventually returned, the bill and processing fees are waived and no fines assessed.

In a similar approach, Vernon Area Public Library District does not assess fines but bills the replacement cost for items that are more than fourteen days overdue. They wanted to make it clear to the public that “no fines” doesn’t mean “no responsibility.” Like other libraries who have eliminated fines, patrons are unable to check out any more materials until the overdue ones are returned. If a patron owes more than $25 for an unreturned item, their account goes into collection if unpaid after thirty-five days, ensuring that the library is acting responsibly with taxpayer dollars.

Maintaining borrowing privileges is the reward for returning your materials on time at Ela Area Public Library District, where patrons are blocked from further checkout until late items are returned. However, there is also a fourteen-day grace period before those borrowing privileges are suspended, allowing more flexibility and incentives for returning items. In a press release to the public, the library stressed the several ways borrowers can renew and manage their account, even when the library is closed, to help mitigate an onslaught of overdue materials.

Evidence suggests that this approach might be more, or at least equally, effective as fines. After running a circulation report of long overdue materials shortly after implementation of the fine-free program, Ela discovered that only four patrons out of over six hundred still had items overdue. “I call that a win,” maintains Womack.

You may be wondering how this could work at a smaller library. At Chadwick Public Library District in Carroll County, Library Director Jo Nell Castellani developed her own version of going fine-free. Being one of only two employees meant the elimination of fines didn’t need a lot of rules and procedures. Castellani demonstrates that service trumps any fiscal gain. For overdue materials, she will send a letter listing the overdue items with the date the books need to be returned in order to not receive fines. If the items are not returned in three weeks, another letter is sent, billing the cost of the item. When the books do come back, Castellani limits checkouts to one item at a time until she gains a sense that the borrower is to be trusted again.

Outcomes: the tangible and the priceless

Libraries that have gone fine free are not ones that rely heavily on fines for revenue and thus, the goodwill engendered has far outweighed any loss of income. In fact, these libraries state that the revenue from fines had been less than one percent of their overall budget, and I suspect that is the same for many libraries.

Although some patrons have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of no fines—they seem to think the concept is just too good to be true!—the response has been overwhelmingly positive. A family with three children that regularly uses Algonquin Area Public Library District was always scrambling to get their DVDs back on time and a late night run to the library was a weekly occurrence. Now, they no longer see the library as a place that induces stress and creates penalties for transgressions, and they immediately sent a thank you to show their gratitude for the change in policy—just one of many positive interactions now that fines are gone for good.

Algonquin was prepared for any negative outcomes, such as an increase in overdues, by budgeting funds to order more materials and insure hold lists did not become too long. While overdues have doubled since going fine free, they have not had to dig into that extra money, holds have not suffered, and there is plenty in the way of a browsing collection to satisfy patrons.

Algonquin’s Christopherson reports another example of the goodwill engendered by going fine-free. “A patron came to the desk with a hot book due that day. She had forty pages to go and was hoping to return her copy and get another one, but there were none on the shelf. I told her that with no fines, she could keep it until Monday and return it on her way to work that morning. The smile was priceless.”

Vernon Area Public Library District’s Territo notes that not only has the elimination of fines been good for patrons, it produced an unexpected boost in staff morale. “Staff like not having to deal with fines,” he said. Because management is no longer putting staff in the position of being the bad guy whose role entails collecting money in their transactions with the public, the “interactions with patrons have been less negative.”

In an effort to welcome back those who have been uncomfortable to return because of the shame or financial burden of fines, Ela Area sends out postcards to patrons who haven’t visited the library in more than eighteen months. They’ve already seen thirty patrons come back with these postcards, and that is only one way they are communicating the message; they are tapping into every platform at their disposal, such as social media, signage, newspaper releases, and messages to the school to prompt reconsideration of the library as a place to visit.

Eliminating fines when you are part of a shared catalog

A challenge that may prevent libraries from implementing a fine-free program is whether the library belongs to a shared catalog. However, both Algonquin and Ela Area are members of the Cooperative Computer Services (CCS) catalog, and not all libraries who belong to this cooperative offer a fine-free program. A work-around for Algonquin was to make their fine-free policy only available to cardholders in the district. “We wanted to insure that we did not create a situation in which patrons abandoned their home libraries for the fine-free environment,” notes Christopherson.

Ela Area’s Womack says they have received great support from their surrounding libraries, much more than anticipated. Taking the lead on an initiative like this allows your fellow libraries to see it in action and be better informed to see if this would work for their own communities.

Whether your library is a stand alone or part of a shared ILS, these libraries demonstrate that fine free is possible. As we move further into the digital realm, fines will become less relevant, so now is a good time to close the book, so to speak. Most importantly, eliminating fines will encourage library use, foster a positive relationship between staff and patrons, and reaffirm that the library is not only full of knowledge, wonder, imagination, but also a benevolent and forgiving place.

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