Lawrence Public Library proposes eliminating fines for overdue books
photo by: Nick Krug
The Lawrence Public Library wants to join a growing list of libraries that have eliminated fines for overdue books and other media.
Library staff recommended this week that the library eliminate overdue fines and charge people only for lost or damaged items. Staff presented the recommendation Monday to the library board, which will vote on the matter at its next meeting. The American Library Association has stated that fines create barriers for low-income people, and the Lawrence library’s executive director, Brad Allen, said the library shared those concerns.
“We believe our core mission is to provide access to information to our community,” Allen said. “That is more important than collecting late fee revenue for us.”
The American Library Association officially came out against charging fines earlier this year, citing concerns that fines create barriers to library materials and services, according to the association’s resolution on library fines. The resolution goes on to state that valuable staff time is absorbed applying, collecting and managing fines and that there is mounting evidence that eliminating fines increases library card adoption and library usage.
Allen said one of the main reasons for wanting to eliminate overdue fines was equity concerns. A library review found that ZIP codes 66044 and 66046, which have the highest percentage of their population in poverty, also have the highest percentage of patrons who owe fines and whose access to check out materials has been blocked because of those fines, according to a library staff report accompanying the recommendation. Under the proposal, patrons need only return the items in good condition to have their accounts unblocked.
photo by: Mike Yoder
The library has already arranged its 2020 budget to accommodate the loss of revenue from fines, which is about $115,000 annually, according to the library’s budget. Though the library’s mill levy rate did not increase for 2020, increasing property valuations mean all taxing entities will receive more money next year than they did this year, and Allen said the library has allocated some of those additional dollars to make up for the lost fine revenue.
Apart from revenue loss, a common concern voiced about the elimination of library overdue fines is that the fines motivate people to return items on time and that without them overdue rates will increase, according to the report.
Allen emphasized that the recommendation is only to eliminate overdue fines, not to eliminate other consequences and fees. The recommendation proposes that overdue items should continue to be marked as lost after a certain amount of time and that the library should temporarily block access on accounts with items two weeks late. Access would be restored with the return of the item.
“So we will have a mechanism to get things back; it just won’t be financial,” Allen said.
Currently, people who fail to return library materials on time are charged 15 cents per day with a maximum overdue charge of $4.50 per item, according to the report. Library card accounts are currently blocked from access when the balance reaches $10. In addition to the elimination of overdue fines, the recommendation proposes that all currently accumulated overdue fines — which total about $300,000 — be waived from all accounts.
Under the proposal, billing for lost or damaged items would continue. Items are considered lost and patrons are billed for replacement once the item is 30 days overdue. Accounts with $25 or more in charges for lost or damaged items are referred to collection 45 days after the fees are charged.
A survey conducted by the library as part of the report indicated that most libraries that eliminated fines did not see an increase in overdue materials. Library staff surveyed 55 libraries that have eliminated fines, according to the report. Of those libraries, 50% reported no change in overdue returns, about 32% reported an increase in overdue returns, about 16% reported they didn’t know, and about 3% indicated a decrease. Of those libraries that indicated their overdue rates increased, a third reported that the change was slight and a quarter reported that the change later leveled off. About 58% of the libraries reported an increase in circulation totals after eliminating overdue fines.
If the library board approves the elimination of fines, it would join several libraries across the country in doing so, including the San Francisco Public Library, Chicago Public Library and the Kansas City Public Library, according to the report. Library staff presented the recommendation to the library board Monday, and Allen said the board seemed supportive of the proposal and would officially vote on the matter as part of its Dec. 16 meeting.