Library Could Do Away with Overdue Fines

Loudoun public libraries may soon do away with their 10-cent-a-day fees for overdue books.

The fees for replacing lost library materials will remain.

Today, once library materials are overdue, they accrue a 10-cent-a-day late fee, capped at $5. Once a customer’s library card reaches $10 in fines, that card is blocked from checking out anything else until the fine is paid.

The library also charges customers for lost materials. Once something is 50 days overdue, it’s considered lost, and the customer much pay for it before they can check out materials again unless they bring it back.

But public library administrators and trustees worry that policy may be excluding the people who most need the library’s services—and possibly hurting the library’s finances.

“At one point in time, from a personal perspective, we were looking at fines as a punitive measure that was ultimately potentially financially detrimental to the library,” said Mark Miller, chairman of the Loudoun County Public Library Board of Trustees. Of the nearly 8,800 Loudoun library card holders who are currently restricted from checking out library materials, he said more than 2,000 are children. He said that means “we are not following the mission of the library to have free and open access.”

He cited a study of library systems across the country conducted by the San Francisco Public Library, which found that overdue fines disproportionately affect low-income and racial-minority communities and are an inefficient use of library staff time. In San Francisco and some other library systems such as Salt Lake City, Enoch Pratt Public Library in Baltimore, and Washington DC, those fines have been eliminated.

“I think that … the purpose of a library is to provide free and equal access to every citizen,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).

The library has seen revenues from overdue fines declining. This year, the library system budgeted for $325,500 in overdue fines, but is on pace to collect only $262,000. Library staff members have put that down to more patrons using the library’s online resources, which return automatically.

The library board and the staff asked county supervisors to do away with a requirement that the library collect overdue fines from its patrons, and that county supervisors not cut the library’s funding because of it. The Board of Supervisors’ finance committee approved that 3-0-1-1, with Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) absent and Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) abstaining. Buona said the lost overdue fine revenues will be built into all future county budgets.

“I don’t think it’s an issue of your economic or social level, I don’t care what level you’re at,” Buona said. “If you don’t return the materials, you don’t return the materials. You’re the guilty party.”

Under the new system, materials would be considered lost at 21 days overdue, and cardholders would be prevented from checking out library materials until they pay the fee or return the materials.

“I think the headline on this that our local newspapers might write is that fines are being eliminated, and that’s certainly true with this, but I think it’s also important to note that consequences are not being eliminated,” said committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “… It is not as if it’s a free-for-all, and you can just come in and take out a book and never have to return it.”

If the full Board of Supervisors accepts the finance committee’s recommendation at their meeting Thursday, May 23, the library Board of Trustees could vote to do away with fines at their meeting June 19.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated fines could go away July 1. A library representative  has clarified that while a library Board of Trustees resolution does state that, it is not the case and fines “will not go away July 1 regardless of any action the [Board of Supervisors] and [Library Board of Trustees] take.”

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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