Late fines eliminated at Spokane public libraries

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Forgetful bibliophiles rejoice, as late fines for materials checked out at Spokane Public Libraries have been eliminated.

The Spokane Public Library Board of Trustees voted unanimously in May to end fines for all materials turned in after their due dates, joining Coeur d’Alene, which went fine-free June 1. The decisions follow a national trend set by the American Library Association in January, when the national board adopted a resolution calling for an end of the monetary punishments that they said “present an economic barrier to access of library materials and services.”

“We’re hoping that it will make a huge difference in our citizen’s lives,” said Mary Starkey, president of the Spokane library board of trustees. “We don’t want a barrier to any of our citizens, where they say, ‘Gosh I think I’ve got $12 worth of late fees that I can’t afford because I’ve got to put food on the table.'”

In addition, library patrons will be allowed to print or copy 50 pages a month without a charge. Copies will still require a library card to access a public terminal, but users will no longer be required to pay a 5 cents per page charge for those 50 copies.

The decision will cost the city’s library system roughly $63,000 in annual revenue, according to information the library’s administration provided to the board. That’s a small amount in the library system’s annual operations budget, which totals $10.6 million this year, and will be offset by the costs of staff time to keep track of fines and the credit card processing fees needed for small print jobs, said Amanda Donovan, communications manager for the library system.

“Yes, there’s a revenue stream for fines when books are returned late,” she said. “But there’s a lot of staff costs incurred with processing those fines. It’s not a productive revenue stream.”

Checkout times for books, audiobooks and music will continue to be three weeks, with a one-week limit on DVDs taken by patrons. Materials that are still missing 14 days after a due date will be considered lost and the library will charge a replacement fee to the account, Donovan said. If that amount exceeds $50, a user will be barred from checking out more materials from the library until the fine is paid, but the library is looking at ways to change that as well.

“We are looking at ways to remove that barrier in the future, whether through foundation donations or something else,” Donovan said.

The difference is that a 20 cents per day fine won’t be assessed during that interim 14 days. The policy is now in place and items that are currently checked out won’t incur late fines if returned within that window, Donovan said. Items may still be renewed up to three times if there’s no current hold on the material.

The library says about 1 in 4 of its patrons with late fines live below the national poverty line, and half are below median income. Elimination of the fines is intended to increase library visits and circulation as the system embarks on a $77 million taxpayer-funded upgrade of its system, including remodels to four existing branches and construction of three new buildings.

“It hopefully will have a big effect on people’s lives, and especially the lives of children, who now won’t have that barrier to checking out a stack of books,” Starkey said.

The Spokane County Library District and its 11 branches continue to charge a 20 cents per day fine. Jane Baker, communication and development director for the district, said there have been internal discussions about eliminating late fees, but nothing formally suggested ahead of this August’s request for a levy increase to fund operations that is expected to pass.

“We’ve had discussions, but nothing finalized of course,” Baker said. “We were kind of waiting to see what happens with this levy first.”

Copying and printing is free for up to 80 pages per week at county libraries and has been for some time, Baker said.

Since the Coeur d’Alene library went fine-free in June, it’s seen a 5% increase in circulation, said Dave Townsend, communications coordinator for the library, in an email. The library’s board is scheduled to review the policy next year.

In the past, both the Spokane Public Library system and the Spokane County Library District have hosted events intending to get people to come settle their fines with food donations. In March 2018, the city’s library system and Spokane Public Schools teamed up to provide library cards for students that didn’t accrue late fines.

Other library systems have either already eliminated their fines or are talking about doing so after the resolution adopted by the ALA earlier this year. The Urban Libraries Council, a membership organization of 150 of the country’s large public library systems, keeps a running tally of member institutions that have eliminated fines and fees on their website. Locations include Spokane, the Sno-Isle and Kitsap regional libraries in Western Washington, and library systems in San Diego, Kansas City, Chicago, Dallas and Salt Lake City.

The library encourages users to check when materials are due at the time of check-out and to return items promptly. Those with existing fines will be required to pay them as the new system takes effect.