Fine free library

Jeremy Kelley browses the collection of books at the E.D. Locke Public Library.

The E.D. Locke Public Library may soon join libraries nationwide by going fine free.

The library board is considering eliminating library fines beginning July 1, 2020 or Jan. 1, 2021, to increase use and provide greater access to materials for low-income patrons.

E.D. Locke Public Library director Heidi Cox previously worked at a fine-free library in Waukesha County. There, she did some independent research on fine-free libraries.

“I compared us against libraries of a similar size to see what percentage of overdue items we had versus those other libraries that charge fines, and it was the same,” she said.

Other studies showed similar findings that pointed to library fines not acting as a deterrent unless the fines were large. However, people stopped using the library when fines drastically increased.

She also attended the Public Library Association Conference where a consortium of libraries from Colorado wanted to know why low-income residents were not using the libraries. The area’s patrons ranged from upper class citizens to migrant workers. After putting together focus groups, they realized the problem: fines.

“Fines hit low-income people harder than they hit middle- and upper-income people,” she said.

The study also found when low-income families allowed children to check out materials, the children were often not allowed to read by themselves over fear of materials being lost or damaged.

Based on their research, the Colorado libraries made the decision to eliminate fines for all patrons.

“They saw a big increase in use, especially among people who really needed the resources,” she said.

After the conference, she noticed other libraries were going fine free, a trend that is spreading to libraries nationwide.

As other Dane County libraries stopped charging fines and started talking about going fine free, she brought it up with the library board, which eventually supported the recommendation.

“The late fees per day was necessary decades ago, but we are finding that it is not necessary anymore,” Monona Public Library director Ryan Claringbole.

The Monona Public Library eliminated fines for all items in 2012 to increase accessibility. After seven years, Claringbole said the library is still seeing positive effects.

“I still encounter patrons that come and say that they are so happy that the library is fine free, because they maybe had late fees when they were a child, or even as a young adult, that stopped them essentially from coming to the library,” he said.

In addition to more low-income families using the libraries, going fine free makes a better environment for patrons and staff.

“The interactions with patrons were much nicer, because you didn’t have people being upset about fines,” Cox said about her time at a fine-free library. “It’s weird, but people end up being more upset about a 10-cent fine than they are about having to pay for something.”

Even without fines, patrons will still face penalties for not returning overdue materials.

Lost items must be returned or replaced. If fines reach more than $50 and the patron has no contact with the library for two months, the case will go to a collection agency.

“It’s not that they check them out and they keep the items,” Claringbole said. “We have this agreement that we give you access to something and you return it.”

Two years ago, the E.D. Locke Public Library stopped charging fines for juvenile materials.

“When it’s on their card, they’re not always the one responsible for getting stuff back,” Cox said. “It felt like it wasn’t fair to hold that child responsible when he’s not the one that can drive to get here to drop the stuff off.”

Claringbole explained that if a child loses or damages an item, a parent may not be able to absorb that cost.

After eliminating fines for juvenile items, Cox found people check out more picture books and children’s items. There was no increase in the number of items returned late or damaged.

Patrons are also more likely to make a donation. The donations will not make up for revenue lost from overdue fees, but the library has other ways to make revenue.

“The biggest way we generate revenue is just checking stuff out, so we’d rather concentrate on that than the fines,” Cox said.

Cox added that if McFarland residents would like to see the library go fine free, they should contact village trustees.

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