Is the lifting of library fines long overdue?

Irina Freyman regularly patronizes several suburban libraries west of Boston. But her favorite is the red-brick Dover Town Library, in part because it offers an unusual advantage: no fines for overdue materials.

"It's not the money, it's just inconvenient to pay fines if I've left my purse in the car," says Ms. Freyman as she and her family head for the checkout desk on a Saturday afternoon. "They're also friendlier here."

Convenience and friendliness were two goals Dover librarians had in mind when they eliminated fines seven years ago. What they have lost in revenue - between $3,000 and $5,000 a year - they say they have gained in goodwill. "Young families borrow a great deal of items," says Kathy Killeen, director. "They've got a lot of pressure on them. If they're a week behind, they don't have to pull out their wallet. It just takes that onerous element of libraries out of our exchanges with people."

To fine or not to fine? As libraries face competition from the Internet, Amazon, and bookstores, some are looking for ways to be more customer-friendly. At the same time, book-lovers point to Netflix and Blockbuster, which have eliminated fines for overdue movie rentals, and suggest that libraries do the same.

Yet tight municipal budgets are making many libraries more dependent than ever on revenue from fines - so dependent that some even hire collection agencies. Defenders of library fines also note that Netflix can recoup losses through monthly fees and Blockbuster with "restocking" charges.

Killeen is quick to acknowledge that Dover's policy would not work everywhere. But for this pastoral town of 6,000, she says, it succeeds. "It takes an incredible amount of staff time to collect 50 cents, to monitor it, and send out notices. We weighed the actual costs of collecting fines against the revenue brought in and decided it was kind of a wash."

In Westford, Mass., Ellen Rainville, director of the no-fines J.V. Fletcher Library, calls fines "basically a negative, punitive transaction you have with patrons over and over." Far preferable, she says, are "positive transactions that don't have that whiff of the old ... judgmental and reproving environment that many people associate with their childhood library."

Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton (N.J.) Public Library and president-elect of the American Library Association, defends fines. "People understand that it's part of the way our institutions do business," she says. "It recognizes that when somebody takes an item out from the library, they're entering into a contract to take it out for a certain period of time. When they decide to keep it out longer than that, they pay a fee."

Ms. Burger dislikes the word fines, preferring late fee. "Fines indicate that you're being punished. It's hardly equivalent to speeding. Late fee implies a different attitude. It doesn't say to people, 'You're bad, you kept your book out too long.' "

Yet she acknowledges the need to tailor library policies to fit certain needs. "We need to be more flexible because not everybody has the means to pay. In some communities, fees work as a barrier and keep people away." The Public Library Association and the Association of Library Services to Children are asking libraries to reconsider card policies that keep low-income teens away for fear of fines.

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."

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."

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