BRATTLEBORO—Have you avoided the library because you’re embarrassed about your late fees? Is there a book you keep meaning to return, but you’ve had it so long you can’t bear to face the librarian, so you keep putting it off? Meanwhile, the overdue fees keep accruing...
You’re not alone.
Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica wants to remove the shame of returning materials past their due date. She also wants to do away with late fees.
And she’s not alone.
Across the country, libraries large and small are reducing or removing overdue fines in an effort to ensure patrons will keep coming back.
How does a library cope with this loss in revenue? And, does it mean there are no books on the shelves because there is no pecuniary deterrent to returning them?
At least one local library has already changed their policy, and no disaster ensued.
In December, 2010, the Putney Public Library stopped charging patrons for late returns.
Library Director Emily Zervas said her library’s members “are generally very good about” returning books on-time.
“We’re small, so it’s easier for us to contact people and check in” when their borrowed materials are late, “rather than have an elaborate fine system,” Zervas said.
If someone wants a book and someone else has it out past its due date, “we just call the person and say, ‘Can you finish that and bring it in?’” said Zervas. “It’s an easy task because we’re small.”
When a patron returns an overdue item and asks about the late fee, Zervas and her staff tell the patron there is no fee, “but you can make a donation if you need to assuage your guilt,” she said.
The donation box is right on the circulation desk.
In the few years prior to the Putney Public Library ending overdue fees, that revenue accounted for about $2,000 per year. The donation box brings in between $700 and $900 per year, Zervas said, but she noted some patrons who return books beyond their due date may also contribute to the library’s annual appeal.
And, she said, the library still charges for lost or damaged books.
Zervas dismissed the financial penalty’s effect on library patrons’ behavior. “People who return books late will return them late whether there are fines or not,” she said.
LaTronica first publicly announced the possible end of Brooks Memorial Library’s late fees during preliminary budget talks at the Nov. 21 regular Brattleboro Selectboard meeting.
“You may notice that we have zeroed out our line for library fines” on the revenue portion of the budget, LaTronica said.
The idea came about during conversations with staff, community members, the library’s board of trustees, and the library’s strategic planning committee, she said.
“We talked about how the library could best serve people,” she said, and the conclusion they reached was that “late fees are stressful, especially for parents of children.”
LaTronica mentioned other segments of the population facing “a significant barrier to access” because of late fees: senior citizens, people with mobility challenges, and job-seekers.
Whether because of a lack of transportation, financial difficulties, or a focus on trying to find work, many members of these groups end up owing more money than they can afford.
“We want our residents to thrive in Brattleboro,” LaTronica said, and late fees “hit vulnerable populations the hardest.”
Doing away with them supports the library’s mission to provide free and open access to materials and tools.
“The more we talked about it,” LaTronica said, “the more we wanted to remove any impediments to people using our services. The library is a place of shared resources, including shared material resources. Those materials belong to the entire community, and we want them to avail themselves” of the library’s offerings.
“These books belong to your friends and neighbors,” she said. “If you’re a couple of days late returning them, your friend probably wouldn’t assess you a fine.”
LaTronica noted the theory is that fines ensure library materials will come back sooner, but in practice, “people accrue fines and never come back.”
At the Brooks Memorial Library’s 50th anniversary party in September, author and advice columnist Amy Dickinson spoke at length about her opposition to library late fees.
Last year, a young girl who lives in Dickinson’s town said she needed help with a homework assignment. Dickinson suggested she go the library. But the girl owed late fees her family never paid. As a result, “her fear over the fee prevented her from as much as setting foot inside the institution for several years,” Dickinson said.
LaTronica and Dickinson both characterized late fees as punitive measures inappropriate for building good relationships between the library and the people who need to use it.
“The item is back and in use,” LaTronica said, yet the fees remain.
“I get it,” said Dickinson. “The late fees are more or less built into the library concept. Late fees raise revenue and provide a financial incentive for people to return their materials and keep them in circulation. But late fees don’t do any of these things if they’re never collected.”
“Late fees are the enemy of early literacy,” Dickinson said, “because instead of promoting responsible behavior, they suppress library visits for some of the people who need the institution the most.”
In her work with other libraries, LaTronica noticed those that did away with late fees placed “conscience jars” on the desks. It changed the culture, LaTronica said, to one where patrons saw the payment as a contribution toward the library, “rather than, ‘I am taking my punishment.’”
LaTronica told the Selectboard her idea for a “conscience jar.” “We thought of having a voting jar, like they do at Amy’s [Bakery],” she said. “Are you feeling generous, or are you feeling guilty? Either way, just put your money in!”
LaTronica said the decision to do away with late fees fits in with the Selectboard’s decision to support diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the community and in municipal functions. She said one idea townspeople brought up at the public hearings stuck with her: Town officials should assign resources to further this goal.
“It really is about equity,” she said. “What’s the greater cost to the community?” A line item in a budget, or “a kid missing out on the library?”
Because LaTronica, as library director, has fiduciary responsibility to the town and its residents, she and her staff and the trustees are “working on the nuts and bolts” of implementing this change.
In the past few fiscal years, the Brooks Memorial Library planned to receive about $16,000 annually in revenue from library fines to help cover a budget of about $620,000. LaTronica said the amount they actually collect varies.
To make up for this loss without having to significantly raise the budget — which is partly raised through taxes — the trustees agreed to use some of the library’s endowment to cover training, conferences, and memberships for staff, professional services, adult programming, and the budgets for adult and juvenile books.
“We generally take 4 percent per year from the library’s endowment, but with the Ronald Read estate, that 4 percent went way up” in the last few years, LaTronica said. In 2015, the library received an unrestricted gift of $1.2 million from the estate of Read, who passed away the previous year.
“Thanks to Mr. Read and others who came before him, we are in such a good position,” LaTronica said.
LaTronica said she was not sure when the policy would change and the fines would disappear, but it won’t happen until first the Selectboard, and then Representative Town Meeting, approve the library’s budget. “The library trustees voted their intention to eliminate fines, but it’s our responsibility to ensure all is in place before we move forward,” she added.
A few Selectboard members voiced their approval of doing away with late fees.
Board Chair Kate O’Connor admitted to owing some money, and pointed out that after the overdue fines disappear, “I won’t have to wear my dark glasses when I go into the library.”