The decision to eliminate late fines at Anchorage Public Library was driven by the needs of our community. We heard from folks about the barrier that late fines put on their use, whether for education or entertainment.
The factors we considered before joining many libraries across the U.S. in going fine-free were:
1. We worked with the schools to have 40,000 children receive library cards because it is important to have children read, know how to find information and use the library for homework and projects. It seemed crazy that we would penalize the children and cause stress to family members by charging late fines.
2. The revenue that the library brought in was 0.02% of the total fines budget for the city and was continuing to drop due to greater use of electronic downloads of books, audio books and movies. Although a small portion of the city budget, it often was a huge amount to pay for people using the library.
3. While people across the city had fines on their cards, it was especially predominant in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.
4. It cost us more in staff time to process the income than we get back in fines, and it was often a negative interaction with the public. Staff now focus on more positive encounters helping people use the library.
5. Research has shown that overdue fines are not effective in encouraging the return of library material.
One of our patrons, a parent, told us how easy it was to rack up fines at the library. They had three children, no car and had to rely on the bus to get things back to the library. Just one day late could rack up enough charges to block a card, and they finally gave up bringing their children to the library. This is more common than one would think and was the tipping point for us to move forward to be late-fine free, a policy that was recommended to our Library Advisory Board and supported by the mayor and Assembly members.
Although we’re only a month into the process, we’ve had a lot of feedback from our community and we welcome more. The initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. Countless patrons have said “thank you” on social media and especially when they visit one of our five locations. We’ve heard from parents, members of the business community and civic leaders that they are both grateful and proud that Anchorage Public Library has taken this step.
For concerns we’ve heard “won’t people just check out a book and keep it?” While we have gone late-fine free, there are still due dates, and we still hold the public accountable for returning what they have checked out. Fees for damaged or lost items will still be charged to cardholder accounts and accounts can still be blocked. A few folks are concerned that any revenue lost for the city is not good, and we have a plan for that — we have great public spaces that we lease for weddings, business meetings, parties and community events. Those fees, along with revenue brought in with passport applications, make up much of the lost fine revenue. We invite you to learn more on our website.
Although it’s still early, we have seen 150 lost items returned, more than 800 people have had fines waived and 150 people have come back to the library — all this after just one month. The Anchorage Public Library mission is to connect people to education, information and community.
We look forward to seeing even more folks come back to the library for employment resources, continuing education, early literacy and of course to find a really good book.
Mary Jo Torgeson serves as Library Director for Anchorage Public Library. She has a passionate belief that libraries are an essential part of a vibrant and cohesive community, and that libraries play a key role in education. She earned her Master’s of Library Science at the University of Washington and her Master’s of Public Administration at Seattle University. Torgeson has been with Anchorage Public Library for more than eight years.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.