Penalty-free: Mt. Angel Public Library eliminates overdue fines

May 2022 Posted in News

By Stephen Floyd

The Mt. Angel Public Library has become the latest book lender to eliminate overdue fines in an effort to make borrowing easier and more accessible.

The Mt. Angel City Council voted May 2 to discontinue library fines following a recommendation from Library Director Jackie Mills, who said fines have long been impractical and unfair to those of fewer means.

“We’re penalizing people just for being forgetful, and we’re also kind of depriving the people who need us the most,” she said.

The library will now charge only for borrowed materials considered lost or damaged, while existing overdue fines will be waived. Materials received through inter-library loans will still be subject to the fee policies of the original library, while cultural passes and wifi hot-spots will remain subject to late fees.

Mills said overdue fines have been on their way out for a while now. Ten years ago, the library collected around $4,000 in fines annually, and right before the COVID-19 pandemic that number had dropped to less than $2,500.

This drop was in part due to tools like email and text reminders, which have helped library patrons become more diligent about returning borrowed materials. Also, more patrons have made use of online resources like ebooks, which automatically return themselves, while more libraries have adopted automatic renewal policies to extend due dates.

During COVID, the library suspended overdue fines because of the many challenges and uncertainties posed by the pandemic. So when the council voted to eliminate them, Mills said it wasn’t so much a change in policy as a reflection of current practice.

“We’ve been fine-free for the last two years, so it’s not really a change, it’s just now official,” she said.

Mills said fines also needed to be reconsidered because they had become a barrier for low-income patrons. She said those who can afford fines tend to pay them and move on, but if someone who struggles financially has to pay unexpected fines, that may be enough for them to go without library services.

“We all just forget sometimes, and the thing is that we are penalizing more heavily those who make less money,” said Mills, adding she is “all about equity, and I’m all about access.”

Mt. Angel Public Library is not alone in this shift away from overdue fines. Six other libraries in the 18-member Chemeketa Cooperative Regional Library Service have made the transition as well, with three others in the process of doing so. 

Mills said this reflects a larger trend seen in areas like Seattle and San Francisco where library officials have acknowledged the need to make lending more accessible.

She said, at the very least, eliminating overdue fines will help reduce “bad PR” for librarians and hopefully encourage more people to turn to the library for resources. Rather than a reputation for strict rule enforcement, she said librarians can be seen as people who want to connect their communities with resources that can enrich their lives.

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