Government

Library fines may come to an end in Cedar Rapids area

New thinking about old tradition: Fines counter to library mission

Heather Meyer-Boothby, a materials librarian, sorts incoming books Wednesday at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library
Heather Meyer-Boothby, a materials librarian, sorts incoming books Wednesday at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library. The library is considering ending fines on overdue materials beginning in July 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Late fees for overdue books, movies, music and other materials could be eliminated at public libraries in and around Cedar Rapids, with some officials saying the collection effort doesn’t work and doesn’t align with a mission of providing access and equity to all patrons.

Efforts to collect fines on overdue materials disproportionately affect those with fewer financial resources, do little to improve retention of the materials and sap library resources by chasing debtors often futilely, said Dara Schmidt, Cedar Rapids Public Library director.

“There is no evidence at all it works,” Schmidt said. “Actually, the evidence shows there is higher material retention without fines.”

The Cedar Rapids Public Library board of trustees is expected to vote on the issue during a meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday at Ladd Library, 3750 Williams Blvd SW. The Hiawatha Library Board previously approved such a plan. The Marion Public Library Board could vote on the matter at 5 p.m., Monday in the Library Community Room at 1095 Sixth Ave. in Marion.

The libraries make up the Metro Library Network, in which they coordinate many policies and share resources and collections.

If the measures are approved, fines would be eliminated effective at the start of fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.

Cedar Rapids’ policy now suspends certain privileges, including borrowing materials, if a person’s fines reach $20.

The new policy would not give free rein to people to keep material indefinitely.

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In addition to email notices, after 30 days overdue a person’s account would be blocked and they would receive a bill for the item. However, there would be a six-month grace period during which the material could be returned without penalty. After six months, the debt would be turned over to a collection agency.

“If they know there is no penalty, they are more likely to come back to the library and return it,” said Jeaneal Weeks, Hiawatha Library director. “It creates goodwill with the public. The most important part is access.”

As of June, over 16,000 blocked library cards were in effect at the metro libraries because of fines and fees from overdue or lost items.

The Cedar Rapids Library collected $75,358 in revenue from fines in fiscal 2019 but spends up to $57,000 a year trying to collect fines, according to a library report.

Schmidt said officials will detail a plan to offset lost revenue if the fine program is eliminated as part of the fiscal 2021 budget, which would be presented to Cedar Rapids City Council for approval in March.

The library could make up some of the difference by boosting circulation numbers and attendance, which could increase state and county appropriations, she said.

The recommendations are based on studies of policies at a dozen libraries around the nation. Schmidt noted Cedar Rapids would not be carving new ground by going fine-free, and actually is a bit late to the approach.

The Iowa City Public Library eliminated fines, but only for children and young adults, in June.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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