On July 1, the Sonoma County Library has joined hundreds of libraries across the nation and go “fine-free;” eliminating overdue fines for items returned late and forgiving past fines. In all, more than 80,000 people — 30 percent of all library borrowers — will have their overdue fines waived.
“Research shows that charging fines doesn’t make a difference in whether people bring back books on time,” said Sarah Vantrease, Public Services Division Manager for the library. “Instead, we see that fines drive people away.” At other Bay Area libraries, eliminating fines has resulted in higher library use and increased customer satisfaction.
While overdue fines are on their way out, some fees will remain. The library will no longer track and collect fines for overdue materials, “but you still have to bring them back,” Vantrease said. Books, CDs, DVDs and other items that are kept more than 42 days after their due date will be considered “lost” and a replacement fee will be added to the borrower’s account. Returning the lost item in good condition will result in the fee being removed.
While the annual revenue from library fines is in excess of $200,000 a year, the practice of tracking and collecting fines and managing and accounting the funds costs the library more than the dollars collected.
Going fine-free is part of the library’s larger plan to increase access to public libraries. In addition to eliminating all past fines and not charging new fines, the library is changing its library card policy. The library will still require photo identification to get a library card, but the requirement to provide proof-of-address will be eliminated due to the increase in displaced, shelterless and seasonal residents.
Library fines can be an extra burden for a family that may be struggling to manage the high cost of living in Sonoma County. “People want to be responsible and do the right thing, but sometimes have to make choices about which bills to pay,” said Sonoma County Library Director Ann Hammond. “Thirty percent of our patrons owe fines right now, and that’s not a good way to do business.”
“Eliminating fines and making it easier to use the library is the right thing to do,” Hammond said. “We are not in the business of collecting fines, we are in the business of sharing books and other materials to help the people of Sonoma County discover, learn and share ideas and information.”