NEW ALBANY — The New Albany-Floyd County Public Library flirted with eliminating overdue fees before it went all in.
They held “amnesty weeks,” where residents could bring in their overdue materials and have their fines waived, and they promoted opportunities for residents to exchange canned food for the elimination of fines.
On one such amnesty week, a family came in to return a pile of books that was over a decade overdue.
“They were so excited to have access again,” said NA-FC Library Director Melissa Merida. “It was almost like this family party.”
Over the past five years, more and more libraries across the United States have started the discussion of eliminating overdue fines, said Merida. On March 1, NA-FC Library made the switch to a fine-free system.
Fines were once thought of as a way to prevent residents from keeping books too long, Merida said, but that way of thinking has been called into question recently. Several studies rounded up by the Colorado State Library in a paper called “Removing Barriers to Access” showed that overdue fines had little to no effect on how often readers returned books.
In the NA-FC Library’s case, Merida thinks fines have done the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. Instead of deterring people from keeping books, the fines kept the patrons from returning them because of lack of funds or will to pay.
The people most impacted were loyal users and the children whose parents or guardians failed to bring them back to the library to return overdue books.
Library’s staff originally proposed eliminating fines for children’s books only, which is another popular alternative to the traditional fine system. But the library’s board suggested eliminating fines altogether.
That’s when library officials started researching the cost of their fine policy.
They found that the library actually spent more money mailing out reminders about overdue books than it made back in overdue fines. It costs the library around $7.10 to retrieve each overdue item, while users only have to pay a maximum of $5 per book. Last year, the library spent a little over $13,000 collecting late fees.
Most of the library’s funding comes from its tax levy, not overdue fees.
“It just made good financial sense, as well as accessibility sense, to just say ‘let’s go fine-free,’” Merida said.
The library still has ways to make sure users bring their books back. They will not let users check out more books if they have an item that is “long overdue,” meaning that it hasn’t been returned for several weeks. They also plan to continue to charge for books that are never returned. Collections will kick in if users have $50 worth of materials that enter “long overdue” territory. The NA-FC Library kept that policy because Merida said that library’s materials are often costly.
“A lot of people don’t realize when you walk out with a stack of books, you have $200 to $300 worth of material there,” she said.
Library users with outstanding late fees can get theirs waived if they visit the library in person.
So far, it’s too early to tell what kind of effect the library’s new policy has had on patrons, but hints for the future could lie in the Charlestown-Clark County Public Library’s experiences.
That library system stopped charging late fees in 2003. They eliminated theirs when switching from a four-week check-out system to a three-week one, amid worries that the new time period would confuse patrons. But the library has experienced so few issues since the policy began that it has no intention of switching back to a fine system, said Director June Kruer.
“When we dropped the fees, it was a big help for our customers as well as our staff,” she said. “Because we weren’t dealing with a quarter here, 50 cents here, you know? We just didn’t have to worry about that.”
The library didn’t see a large jump in patrons refusing to return books, but it has started to charge a $1 fee when library staff must mail out an overdue notice. Some outlying users were waiting five to seven weeks to return books, and the process cost the library too much in postage to avoid charging some sort of fee. The $1 fine isn’t charged if the library has to email the patron.
The Jeffersonville Township Public Library still has late fees, but it recently started a Read Away Your Fines program for children. For every 15 minutes of time kids spend reading outside the library, $1 worth of their fees are waived, with the potential to eliminate $5 per day and $30 per week, according to Director Libby Pollard.
Even Pollard isn’t sold on late fees, but has yet to look into eliminating them because she’s concentrating so much on building updates.
While the NA-FC library isn’t sure how its new system will affect operations, officials have had their own taste of what it could be like. Over the summer, they started a pop-up library event called InstaLibrary in local underserved neighborhoods. Children in the program were given bags for their books and not subjected to late fees. Over the course of the program, the library only lost four bags.
“That alone told us that there really is a misnomer that fines make people bring stuff back,” Merida said. “…It was more the excitement of being able to go to the InstaLibrary every week when it visited their neighborhood and check out another bag of books.”