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Lawrence Public Library leaders say eliminating late fines has improved access, not resulted in more late books | News, Sports, Jobs

Lawrence Public Library leaders say eliminating late fines has improved access, not resulted in more late books | News, Sports, Jobs

photo by: contributed photo

In this contributed photo from June 2020, a new book display is pictured at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St.

Two years after the Lawrence Public Library decided to eliminate fines for overdue books, library leaders say the change has not adversely affected the turnaround of materials and has improved overall access to the library.

The library Board of Trustees voted unanimously to eliminate late fines for overdue books and other media beginning in January 2020. LPL Executive Director Brad Allen said that eliminating fines has not affected the timeliness of book returns, the waiting period for holds or the percentage of lost items, but has improved access to the library for people with low incomes.

“I feel like our job increasingly needs to be identifying and eliminating barriers, creating access and creating equity,” Allen said. “And so that’s what eliminating fines does. Late fees harm the people that need us the very most.”

Before the change, if someone accrued more than $10 in late fees, their account would be blocked until the balance was paid. Allen said a community needs assessment that the library previously conducted indicated that 30% of respondents living below the poverty level said fines adversely affected their ability to use the library. As part of the policy change, the library also forgave all overdue fines, which Allen said brought approximately 5,000 accounts back into good standing and allowed those users to once again check out books and materials.

The elimination of overdue fines does not mean that users can keep books or other materials indefinitely without consequence. Under the policy, library users are still charged for lost or damaged items and are blocked from checking out additional books and materials once an item becomes two weeks overdue. Return of the overdue item immediately restores access. Allen said instead of a punitive fine, the incentive to return materials is continued access to the library, and the numbers so far indicate that the strategy works.

“We are limiting the effect you are having on other users, but just not in a financial way,” Allen said.

The library created a report earlier this year that looked at various metrics since the elimination of overdue fines, comparing numbers from recent years, 2020 and several months of data from 2021. According to the report, the percentage of materials returned on time was 87% in 2019 compared to 90% in 2020; average wait time for a book on hold was 17 days in 2019 compared to 19 days in 2020; and about 1.5% of checkouts resulted in a lost item in 2019 compared to about 2.5% in 2020.

While the report concludes that trends did not significantly change for any of the metrics, it notes that circulation at the library, which had limited in-person browsing for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, is significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, there were about 830,000 initial checkouts at the library, compared to about 450,000 in 2020. The library lifted its limits on the number of visitors and browsing time in June 2021, according to its website. Allen said the metrics related to on-time returns, wait times and lost items are constantly monitored, and if the library started to see trends getting out of whack as circulation levels bounce back, the library would examine the issue again.

As expected, the elimination of overdue fines has meant a drop in revenue for the library. In 2019, the library collected about $145,700 in fees for overdue, lost and damaged items, according to library data. In 2020, the library collected about $17,600 in fees for lost and damaged items, and it collected about $18,300 in those fees in the first 11 months of 2021. As the Journal-World reported when the board voted to eliminate overdue fines, the library was able to arrange its budget to make up for the lost revenue.

In the end, Allen said charging overdue fines to its users is not the way the library wants to make money, and that eliminating fines aligns with what is becoming a library best practice as well as equity goals in the city’s strategic plan.

Lawrence Public Library leaders say eliminating late fines has improved access, not resulted in more late books