Vernon Area Library, patrons happier without late fees

  • Vernon Area Public Library Director Cynthia Fuerst supported the decision to stop assessing overdue fines last year.

      Vernon Area Public Library Director Cynthia Fuerst supported the decision to stop assessing overdue fines last year. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/26/2018 10:12 AM

A suburban library's decision to stop charging patrons for overdue materials has cost it about $54,000 in revenue, but officials have noticed positive effects they say counter the lost income.

Books, movies and other items are being returned to Lincolnshire's Vernon Area Public Library much earlier than they were before the August 2015 policy change, for example, and potentially embarrassing confrontations at the checkout counter over late fees are a thing of the past.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"(Employees) don't have to dispute late fees, issue waivers because of hardships or shake down a stressed-out student or busy parent for change," said Becky Ferguson, the library's communications coordinator.

Vernon is one of the few libraries in the Northwest suburbs to take that step. Others include the Algonquin Area Public Library in Algonquin and the Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich.

The Addison Public Library board voted Tuesday to eliminate overdue fines, effective Nov. 1.

At Vernon, 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.

Those fines generated about $35,000 in 2014, officials said. That's less than 1 percent of the district's annual budget.

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But library officials came to believe penalizing customers for late returns wasn't a friendly policy.

"Our patrons didn't like the fines, and our staff didn't like the fines," library Director Cynthia Fuerst said. "Contrary to what some people might think, our staff doesn't like chasing people down (for fines)."

Brooke Greenberg reads to Joely Rabinowitz at the Vernon Area Public Library. The Lincolnshire library no longer charges patrons for overdue books.
  Brooke Greenberg reads to Joely Rabinowitz at the Vernon Area Public Library. The Lincolnshire library no longer charges patrons for overdue books. - Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Officials also discovered late fees didn't encourage people to return books and videos on time. Rather, people generally return books, movies or CDs when they're done enjoying them, Fuerst said.

The lack of overdue fines doesn't mean Vernon Area patrons can borrow items indefinitely without penalty. Customers who keep materials more than two weeks past the due date are billed for the replacement value of the item. Patron accounts are frozen until the item is returned or paid for, too.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"So they look under the car seat or check between their couch cushions, find that missing book or CD and return it so they can check out more books and CDs," Ferguson said.

If a long-overdue item is returned, the account is reactivated and the replacement charge is voided.

An examination of checkout data has shown positive changes since fines were eliminated, officials said.

Books and other library materials are being returned, on average, eight days earlier than before the policy shift, Ferguson said.

The number of new cardholders has increased 8 percent, the number of first-time checkouts has increased 3 percent, and the number of physical items being checked out has increased by 1 percent, she said.

Patrons appreciate the new policy.

"I think it's been fantastic," Lincolnshire resident Margaret Pezzella said on the library's Facebook page. "Fines put the library in an adversarial position. Without them, the library is more like a shared community experience where we are all equally responsible for the materials there."

Patron Lynn Laskoe said she returns materials much more promptly because she's part of an "an honor system" now.

"It has helped people be more responsible," said Laskoe, of Buffalo Grove.

As for the lost revenue, Fuerst said the library had already offered programs and other services that required library investments but were free to patrons.

"There's a cost (to) providing good service," she said.

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