Staff Editorial

Ending library fines is the right thing to do

A clerk rolls a cart of returned materials to be processed at his work station at the Marion Public Library on Monday, N
A clerk rolls a cart of returned materials to be processed at his work station at the Marion Public Library on Monday, November 26, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

There is an encouraging new trend in public libraries across the nation, and a few Eastern Iowa entities are among the early adopters.

Three public libraries in Linn County have adopted policies against conventional late fines, which experts studying the issue say are counterproductive. Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha join libraries in Dubuque, Iowa City and Sheldon that have some form of a no-late-fee policy.

It may seem counterintuitive, but there is considerable evidence that imposing monetary fines for past-due returns actually has a negative impact on material retention. That’s because people who can’t afford the fines might just keep the books and stop visiting the library.

Of course, that outcome runs contrary to libraries’ basic mission, which includes offering free access to information to all residents, regardless of their ability to pay.

To allay the fears of library traditionalists, this change does not constitute an invitation to hoard library books without consequence.

Under the policy set to take effect next year in the Cedar Rapids area’s Metro Library Network, borrowers’ accounts would be blocked after materials are 30 days overdue, and the person would receive a bill to replace the unreturned item. At that point, the patron has six months to return the item without penalty before the charge is turned over to a collection agency.

So, borrowers still have incentives to return materials in a timely fashion, but the traditional late-fee model is an outdated practice that has not been shown to improve outcomes for library users.

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In some extreme cases, people have even been detained by law enforcement over their failure to pay library fees. In 2009, an Eastern Iowa woman was taken to jail after she reportedly refused the Jesup Public Library’s attempts to retrieve a borrowed book or a replacement payment.

It’s difficult to see how cases like that represent a good use of time for the library staff or the police department, especially considering the book in question was valued at $13.95.

This year, Chicago Public Libraries became the biggest system in the nation to switch away from late fees. Library officials have reported significant increases in book returns and overall use of the library. We are hopeful that Eastern Iowa libraries will see similar results.

Library professionals in the Metro-Library Network deserve credit for their forward-thinking approach and promoting library access for all.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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