PD Editorial: Libraries without fines? One more reason to read

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Librarians across the country — including here in Sonoma County — are raising their voices and uttering words that were once unthinkable: Don’t worry about those overdue books. They’re on us.

On Monday, the Sonoma County Library joined the growing number of library systems in the United States that are eliminating fines for late returns. Patrons are no longer charged 25 cents per day overdue. And if you’re one of the 80,800 people in Sonoma County who currently owe money, all will be forgiven if you return what you borrowed to the library in good condition.

The new “fine-free” policy is designed to strengthen the library’s core mission of encouraging and facilitating reading, especially among young people whose families can’t afford to buy books. It’s a commendable move that should improve accessibility for many local residents.

Despite the fact that fines have long been a staple at U.S. libraries, studies by the Colorado State Library and others indicate that the penalties have little or no effect on when a patron returns a book. In fact, fines drive away some low-income patrons who don’t want to run the risk of adding another debt to their lives.

Sonoma library officials hope to spread the word that they trust patrons to return borrowed materials — and will forgive them if they forget a due date or can’t get to the library in time. “We don’t want a small financial issue to become the reason why they can’t use the library,” says Ray Holley, spokesman for Sonoma’s library system.

Similar fine-free policies are reportedly working well elsewhere. Sonoma State University dropped its fines four years ago, and California State University libraries have since followed suit. The San Rafael Public Library system eliminated fines for books for children and teenagers several years ago and saw no increase in late returns. The public libraries in Oakland and Marin County ended their fines on Monday, too.

Earlier this year, the American Library Association approved a resolution encouraging public libraries to phase out fines. That’s not an easy decision for some library systems because they rely on fines for their operating budget. In Sonoma County, however, fines account for only about 1% of the library budget. And, as Holley points out, it costs money to assess and collect fines, undermining their usefulness. This move should free up about 20 hours a month in the library system’s accounting department, he said.

Under the old policy, patrons were blocked from checking out new materials when their fines topped $10. The new limit will be $100 for lost books and materials. Library officials expect the number of blocked patrons to drop from nearly 42,000 to about 5,000. That’s a substantial increase in usage worthy of pursuing.

That’s a strong case, but the library system should maintain careful records after the change so that in a year or two library officials can assess whether the program is a success. They must ensure not only that the rate of unreturned materials doesn’t rise substantially but also that wait lists for popular books and other items don’t grow substantially longer because people are keeping a best-seller an extra week (or more).

Sharing, after all, is central to the library’s success — as is forgiving each other when we fall a bit short on punctuality.

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