Baldwin Borough Public Library waiving fees
Everyone has been there: It’s a long day and you’re supposed to do something, but life gets away from you. Maybe you forgot to return that library book and now you’re worried you’ve incurred a fine.
At 11 libraries in Allegheny County, including the Baldwin Borough Public Library, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. They’re piloting a program that follows a national trend to eliminate overdue late fees on materials.
Baldwin library removed its overdue late fines on Sept. 1 for materials checked out of the library, along with several libraries in the east suburbs including C.C. Mellor Memorial Library and the Monroeville Public Library.
“Our whole philosophy and mission is to provide a community destination,” said Jenny Worley, Baldwin library director. “Part of being this community center is being a destination and not asking anything in return. Removing this fine really takes that expectation off of them and allows us to serve them the way we intend to.”
Libraries across the country are eliminating late fines.
In 2018, the Allegheny Regional Asset District gathered a group of library representatives to meet with a consultant to find ways to up library services in the region and to work together better, Worley said. It was through that that the idea to pilot an overdue fine free program locally was born, she said.
Libraries interested in the program have been meeting since the spring to work out the logistics.
“The goal is equitable service,” Worley said. “It doesn’t make sense to punish or chastise or have a negative impact on somebody just because they’re a few days late returning their book. We don’t want the library to be a burden in your life.”
Looking at studies nationally, librarians found that eliminating the overdue late fee doesn’t mean more people won’t return the material. Still, if you don’t return material within six weeks of its due date, the library will still send you a bill for it. But if you find it and bring it back, they’ll waive the fee.
Instead, the studies found that people checked out more materials and there were more users at the libraries.
“What this does is it gets people who were afraid to come to the library — now they’re coming,” Worley said.
The goal is to remove the shame factor that people face when they incur a late fee, said Erin Pierce, library director at C.C. Mellor. She talks about families that tell their kids they can’t check books out because mom is afraid they’ll be late.
“Think about what’s entailed in that. It can be a transportation barrier. It can be an economic barrier,” she said. “The goal is to provide access to our community.”
Pierce said people “literally giggled and clapped with joy” when they learned their fines were being waived.
The hope is to break down as many barriers as possible, said Nicole Henline, director of the Monroeville Public Library.
“If you’re having a bad week and you’re two days late, it’s OK,” she said.
The library directors talk about how people incur fines as children and can never pay them off.
There’s that embarrassment to come into the library, thinking everyone knows that they owe money.
To help eliminate late fees from the get-go, at least some of the libraries — including Baldwin — are instituting an automatic renewal on materials, unless there’s a hold waiting for them.
Over the last several years, libraries across the area have noticed a decline in what they bring in for overdue fines. More people are checking out e-books, which don’t come with late fines for late returns.
In Monroeville alone, there was a 62% drop in what overdue fines brought in between 2011 and today, when the library collected an estimated $18,000, or 1% of its budget, from the fines.
Henline doesn’t expect the library will have problems making that money up through other sources. They plan to up their fundraising and will see an increase in funds coming from the state this year. They also anticipate this will bring in an increase in users, that will also bring in more money through the funding formula.
At C.C. Mellor, overdue fines bring in about 1.5% of their budget, or roughly $3,500. Pierce says they will come up with a way to make up that money.
At Baldwin Borough library, overdue fines also make up about 1% of the library’s budget, or $1,200. Worley says she plans to increase fundraising efforts and look for grants to offset costs.
“There are definitely ways,” she said.
Some people have noted that they felt like they were contributing to the library every time they paid a late fee. So, there’s a donation jar at the front desk that they can still put that money in, if they’d like.
The pilot is set to run through the end of the year, but the participating directors said they’d like to continue it further.