Sonoma State University students don’t have to fret about unearthing overdue library books from under their beds or laundry piles. The Rohnert Park campus eliminated about two years ago overdue fines for its books and DVDs, and now other colleges are following suit.
All California State University libraries agreed to ditch the fines this summer with the launch of a new, unified library system that gives students access to all of the campuses’ collections. The move to abolish late fees represents a new shift, particularly among academic libraries, said Karen Schneider, SSU’s dean of the library.
It’s one that even public libraries are considering, although officials at Sonoma County Library say it’s a little more complicated for them.
Libraries are realizing overdue fines do little to encourage people to turn in their books on time but create more work for staff, who often have to issue repeated overdue notices, she said. Half the CSU campuses already had gotten rid of the fees when they agreed to be a “fine-free” college system.
“My least favorite thing in the world is overdue fines,” Schneider said. “It’s a nuisance.”
She also finds them ineffective. Students who have a habit of turning books in late will not be deterred by fines, Schneider said.
“We seem to be getting books back the way we always did,” she said, fines or none.
SSU officials decided to eliminate the fines after discussions with the campus’s fee advisory committee. The goal was to encourage more students to use the library and its materials without fear of financial penalties, which disproportionately affect first-generation and economically disadvantaged students and those struggling to balance work, school and family responsibilities, Schneider said.
“If the students are fearful of overdue fines, it could affect their willingness to check out books,” she said. “We have students who have very tight budgets. We want everybody to be on an equal playing field.”
Public libraries around the country, including the Chicago area and Columbus, Ohio, also have eliminated overdue fines.
In Sonoma County, the practice has been discussed. The concern is patrons won’t be motivated to return books if there’s no fine, said Tracy Gray, interim director of Sonoma County Library, which has more than 230,000 users.
The library system collects a total of $350,000 in fines at its 11 branches, Gray said.
She said it’s a tough balancing act for public libraries. They don’t want to remove barriers for residents to access their materials, but they also need them to be returned for others to use, she said.
“We do not want people who would normally come to the library to stay home and not use our services because they have overdue fines,” said Gray, who plans to revisit with other staff their overdue fine policy later this summer. “On the other end, fines are an incentive to return items on time so others have access to them.”
Like other libraries around the country, they offer a couple times a year “amnesty” days on which borrowers can return overdue books without paying the accrued late fees, Gray added. Patrons are asked to bring in canned goods and nonperishable food items as a kind of payment, which then are donated to local organizations, such as Redwood Empire Food Bank.