Editorial: Eliminating late fees an intriguing step for libraries

  • Vernon Area Public Library employee Christa Wells checks out some books for patron Michele Meyer. Library officials have dropped fines for overdue materials.

      Vernon Area Public Library employee Christa Wells checks out some books for patron Michele Meyer. Library officials have dropped fines for overdue materials. Russell Lissau | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 8/17/2015 2:37 PM

The days of libraries charging patrons 10-cent-a-day fines for overdue books may be heading for history's scrap heap. At least two suburban libraries say the model no longer works, and they are breaking tradition to take a different approach.

Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire last week joined Algonquin Area Public Library in dropping minuscule fines for overdue books and other materials. Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich says it will follow next month. Library officials say penalizing people for borrowing isn't customer friendly, although they will charge replacement costs to those who simply don't return items. They see eliminating fines as breaking down barriers that may prevent people from using important services.

 

We like the move because anything that promotes library use -- especially for the many who rely on libraries for books, movies and computer time they can't provide at home -- should be encouraged and pursued. Today's libraries are much different places than those of decades ago, with modern technology and a host of valuable information services. Across the country, select libraries are eliminating fines as they expand their role from lending books and DVDs to being community centers -- a destination for events, job-search assistance and other programs.

"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," American Library Association President Sari Feldman told the Daily Herald's Russell Lissau.

In the case of the Vernon Area library, officials erased nearly $43,000 in outstanding fines that had been accrued over time by more than 8,400 customers. That's less than 1 percent of the library's annual budget, and officials found that the relatively small amount of fine money collected per person wasn't worth either the manpower needed to manage the process or the patron ill will that came with it.

They say their research shows late fees aren't what get people to return items on time. Most people return items when they are done with them or when they are due. Now, when that doesn't happen, patrons will be billed for the replacement cost of materials two weeks overdue. If the item is returned promptly, no charge is 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.

Since the replacement cost of a book or DVD is much more than a pile of dimes, one can foresee those patrons inclined toward tardiness to be more diligent about knowing the due date and location of library materials they've borrowed. Algonquin library officials say the nearly year-old no-fine policy is popular with staff and patrons. We say eliminating fines for overdue books is an intriguing idea that seems suited to our times.

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