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No more fees at libraries

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Harnett County’s library system set out to change a narrative.

Studies show libraries developed a negative stigma over the years and mainly for one reason: overdue fines. Another misconception hatched by the public is libraries rely on such fines to keep the lights on.

Leadership of the county’s library system developed a new approach to community service recently in hopes of not only changing the way people see their facilities but also ensure nobody is locked out of its valuable resources.

Angela McCauley, director of the county’s library system, and Assistant Director Joanna Cox appeared before county commissioners last week to present a popular formula that is gaining traction nationwide. McCauley recommended the county eliminate all late fines, both past and in the future, on books, audio books, DVDs and launch pads or preloaded electronic tablets. Penalties for lost or damaged items, which include blocking of the account, will remain in place.

McCauley said the decision stemmed from a desire to more closely adhere to the system’s mission of cultivating lifelong learning, empowering individuals and strengthening the community. In an effort to tear down barriers that hinder the public’s ability to utilize their services, McCauley said her staff looked at community changes over the past few years including the rapid growth throughout the area.   

“We had to examine how those changes impact those community needs,” McCauley said. “Some of the barriers that prevent people from using library’s services are often related to location and transportation. Around 2018, there came a movement across the nation and North Carolina specifically, and the initiative was to remove overdue late fees from library policies. It became a huge trend and we discussed it.”

Initially skeptical of the practice, McCauley paid particular attention to several common concerns related to loss of revenue from the fines, creating a lack of motivation to return items and an increase in lost material.

“We took a wait-and-see approach,” said McCauley. “We considered those things and hesitated on moving forward because we want to be good stewards of taxpayer money. We wanted to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We wanted to hear from other libraries.”

It turned out outcomes exceeded expectations. In fact, the opposite occurred in some regards as libraries reported significant increases in returned items, some that had been overdue for months and even years. People tended not to keep items for longer periods of time and membership overall went up drastically.

“More and more libraries are going fine free every year,” Cox said. “What they found is eliminating overdue fines actually significantly increases their citizenship engagement. They have seen more people coming in the doors, they see more items being checked out, they see more people participating in library programs, and are seeing more people coming in to register for a library card. The Chicago Public Library went fine free in 2019 and saw a 240% increase in item returns in the first 3 weeks.”

According to the county system’s data, about 23% of all library cardholders or 70,000 people, have overdue charges attached to their account and are at risk of losing total access due to late fines. Under the current structure, accounts are blocked when total fines reach $10 or more or the overdue charge reaches 90 days. With parents and retirees making up a large percentage of the county’s cardholders, Cox said the system ends up hurting the people who need the resources the most. 

“A parent may check out 40 or more children’s books in one visit,” said Cox. “If just 4 of those books come back a month late, one gets left in a bag or falls behind the couch as books tend to do, that would rack up enough overdue fines to prevent that entire family from accessing the library. We’re only talking about eliminating these fines that are considered overdue.

“If we eliminate those, we would continue to charge lost and damaged fees, and continue to block accounts with lost items and excessive damage charges. The bottom line is patrons still must return their items and return them in usable condition in order to utilize library resources. They’re just not going to be penalized for returning them late.”

Late fees originally started as a way to hold people accountable, but studies found people are less likely to return items once they become overdue. The end result benefits no one. 

“As fines rack up, the patron loses library privileges and the library loses the item,” Cox said. “It’s really like a lose-lose situation.”

Any concerns over the library running out of material because people are taking their time bringing it back, Cox said, are minimized by the county’s ability to get pretty much anything thanks to a statewide sharing network.

“We have access to 7 million items statewide,” said Cox. “Library collections are a lot bigger than they used to be. The book collection in Harnett County has grown 150% in 30 years. That’s 110,000 more books.”

In terms of revenue loss, Cox said late fees generally make up around 1% of the operating budget, and numbers are similar with municipal libraries. With library staff making $16.25 an hour and the average time to explain, collect and process a late fine, which typically is around $5.40, running approximately 15 to 20 minutes, numbers suggest the fine isn’t even worth it. Cox said the practice isn’t compatible with the libraries goals of encouraging versatile and economic growth as well as providing exceptional customer service.

“Overdue fines perpetuate negative feelings about the library,”Cox said. “They create unnecessary tense interactions with patrons and our staff and ends up costing us money.”

Overdue fines also disproportionally impact patrons in economically and socially distressed areas, Cox said. She presented a graph to commissioners showing the more an area owes collectively in overdue fines, particularly the central, south and southeast parts of the county, the more likely it is to have citizens living below the federal poverty line.

“The people who really need our resources the most are the ones at risk of losing their library access due to overdue fines,” said Cox. “$5 may not immediately sound like a lot of money but for a lot of people it can be a fairly significant amount. It’s almost 2 gallons of gas, a couple grocery store items, a meal, and we don’t want to create a situation where someone who is in a distressed situation has to choose between paying their library fines or putting their earnings towards something they really need.”

Commissioners added the recommendation to the consent agenda for its Oct. 18 meeting.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038. 

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