All are forgiven: Vernon Area library halts fines for overdue books

Saying penalizing people for borrowing items isn't a friendly policy, officials at a library in southern Lake County have broken with industry tradition and done away with fines for overdue books and other materials.

As part of the new philosophy, the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire also erased nearly $43,000 in outstanding fines that had been accrued by more than 8,400 customers.

Everyone with a Vernon Area library card now has a clean account, regardless of past infractions, spokeswoman Catherine Savage said.

"Punishing people for using the library is not in line with what we want to be doing for our patrons," Savage said. "They're all free and clear now."

But patrons will now receive bills to replace books and other material once they're overdue by two weeks - and they still won't pay if they simply return the material.

When it launched the policy this week, Vernon Area became one of the few libraries in the Northwest suburbs to eliminate overdue fines. The Algonquin Area Public Library was the first, taking the leap in September 2014.

The Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich is next. Officials there plan to eliminate assessing late fees starting Sept. 2.

Select libraries in Ohio, Missouri, Massachusetts, Colorado and other states have eliminated fines, too.

Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association, acknowledged that fines and fees can be barriers preventing people - especially poorer people - from using library services.

And as libraries become places people turn to not just for books but also for community events, job-search assistance and other programs, finding ways to reduce those barriers is important, she said.

"Public libraries are in the process of transformation, and we increasingly recognize that we are less about what we have for people and more about what we do for and with people," Feldman said.

At Vernon Area, fines for most overdue materials had been 10 cents per day. Fines for DVDs, video games and some other popular materials were $1 a day.

Fines generated about $35,000 for Vernon Area in 2014, Savage said. That's a lot of dimes, but it amounted to less than 1 percent of the district's annual budget.

And the manpower needed to answer questions about fines and process them wasn't worth the money coming in, Savage said.

Through research done earlier this year, officials also discovered late fees didn't encourage people to return books and videos on time.

"People bring things back because they're done with them," Savage said. "Or they bring them back because they're due."

Instead of being assessed relatively minuscule daily fines, patrons who don't return items will be billed for their replacement cost.

Bills will be sent to patrons for items two weeks overdue, Savage said. If an item is then returned promptly, charges won't be assessed.

If the item hasn't been returned within 35 days of the original due date, the bill moves to an independent debt-collection agency, Savage said.

At the Algonquin library, that's resulted in about $57,000 in recovered replacement costs and fees since officials eliminated overdue fines, Executive Director Stephen Bero said.

Vernon Area patron Scott Stoga supports the new approach. He thinks it will put more pressure on customers - especially parents of young readers - to bring books back.

"Buying a new book is a lot more (expensive) than 10 cents a day," said Stoga, of Deerfield.

As the Algonquin library's no-fine policy nears its anniversary, Bero said the response remains positive.

"It's one less thing for us to worry about, and patrons like it (because) they're not being bugged," he said.

Eliminating fines has cost the library some revenue, but that's been offset by increased goodwill in the community, Bero said.

Vernon Area's Savage hopes her library experiences a similar public-relations boost. They've promoted the change on the library's website, on social media and in a freshly published newsletter.

"So far, people are very surprised and equally pleased," Savage said.

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  Vernon Area Public Library employee Christa Wells checks out some books for patron Michele Meyer on Tuesday. Starting this week, overdue materials no longer will generate fines. Russell Lissau/
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