Is the lifting of library fines long overdue?
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Even when money isn't a problem, there can be other obstacles. "People don't carry much cash anymore, and they don't carry checks much," Burger says. "We noticed that they weren't able to clear late fees off their account. When we started taking credit cards, people were more than willing to clear their account."Skip to next paragraph
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When accounts aren't cleared, some libraries turn to collection agencies. One firm, Unique Management Services in Jeffersonville, Ind., works with nearly 800 public libraries in North America.
"Most of the time we're talking to people who are busy and just haven't made it a priority to take those materials back," says Kenes Bowling, manager of customer development. "We hear things like, 'Well, it's a free library, isn't it?' Often people don't understand that library materials have to be purchased, and typically purchased with tax dollars. In the current economic environment of reduced tax revenues," he says, "stopping those losses really gets to be critical."
Delinquent accounts average less than $100, Mr. Bowling says. He explains that no more than 1-1/2 percent of a library's cardholders are sent to them. Of that number, on average, 70 percent respond. Some of those who do not may be reported to a credit-rating bureau. "When a patron's account has been credit-reported and is unpaid, most lenders will not extend credit," Bowling says. "Once the account is paid, it ceases to be a credit issue."
At the Chicago Public Library, which does not use a collection agency, fines brought in $1.1 million in revenue last year. Fines are low - 10 cents a day - producing what spokeswoman Maggie Killackey calls "a very good rate of return."
Last year the San Diego Public Library collected $925,000 in fines. The city treasurer's office acts as a collection agency.
In Dallas, accounts owing $35 or more for 55 days go to a collection agency. Cardholders owe the library $3 million in fines and unreturned materials, says Kjerstine Nielsen, central library administrator. The library collected $635,000 last year.
Some libraries offer an amnesty one day a week or one week a year. This month the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is giving patrons a one-time amnesty to return overdue materials with no penalties.
A fines-free policy doesn't mean users are responsibility-free. In Westford, patrons must pay for lost or damaged books. "We have an appreciative audience who fess up that they left their novel in a taxicab in London," Rainville says. "Or they pay their check and bring a photo of the book in the bottom of the swimming pool when it flipped off the deck chair."
Making a case for no fees, she adds, "We want to help parents raise excited, literate readers who become future taxpayers and appreciate their libraries, and not be confused that our main objective is teaching the moral responsibility to hit the due date."
In Dover, if materials are over a month late, cardholders can't borrow more until they return what they have. Most are "very conscientious" about it, Killeen says. Noting that their return rate parallels that of libraries with fines, she says, "There are plenty of things for librarians to do besides collecting nickels. We want people to come in and use us."