Jones Library eliminates late fees for all patrons 

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  • Valerie Gracechild of Amherst reads in the atrium of the Jones Library in Amherst on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 15, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Valerie Gracechild, left, and Yaxin Qin, both of Amherst, read in the atrium of the Jones Library in Amherst.

  • Premila Nair of Amherst returns a book to Jones Library staffer Seth Rothberg in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Yaxin Qin, left, and Valerie Gracechild, both of Amherst, read in the atrium of the Jones Library in Amherst.

Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2019 9:00:20 PM
Modified: 9/5/2019 9:00:10 PM

Calling it a matter of equity and social justice, trustees of the Jones Library system have eliminated fines for books and other materials that are returned late by patrons, effective immediately.

The move came after the Forbes Library in Northampton ended late fees for youths and teen patrons, and follows the lead of smaller libraries, including those in Hatfield, Deerfield, Leverett, Southampton, Sunderland and Westhampton that no longer impose such fines on borrowers. The new policy covers fines on books, videos, e-readers and other loaned materials not brought back on time.

“In a nutshell, we believe overdue fines are an outdated policy and ultimately don’t work,” Library Director Sharon Sharry told the board of trustees at its meeting Thursday.

Trustees voted 5-0 last month to no longer impose late fees, implementing the recommendation of Sharry, library staff and the trustees’ personnel, planning and policy subcommittee. Austin Sarat, president of the trustees, called the request “fabulous” and expressed gratitude to Sharry and her team for allowing the trustees to take up the topic.

Sharry said the decision centers on the fact that fines are likely to hurt people in the community who are economically disadvantaged and yet depend on the library to read books and watch movies. Fines also have a way of discouraging people from using the Jones Library and the two branches, Munson Library in South Amherst and the North Amherst Library. Unpaid fines can also lead to people’s library card privileges being revoked or suspended, trustees noted.

Sharry presented statistics that show late fees do little to encourage prompt return of materials, with 95 percent of what is on loan returned within a week of the due date. The Jones has nearly 19,000 cardholders and circulates about 400,000 items annually.

The new policy goes beyond what was implemented by the Forbes Library, which since July 1 no longer charges late fees for patrons age 17 and under, eliminating existing late fees for these patrons.

Forbes Library Director Lisa Downing said while changing the policy for all patrons is on the mind of the staff, there remains concern about the loss of revenue that helps sustain the operations of the institution.

“There wasn’t talk at this time of eliminating fines in general,” Downing said of the decision.

But Downing said that dropping late fees altogether is becoming more common for libraries of all sizes across the country and that she expects it to be revisited at some point.

Increased usage?

In January, the American Library Association published a resolution stating that “monetary fines present an economic barrier to access of library materials and services,” and that “there is mounting evidence that indicates eliminating fines increases library card adoption and library usage.”

Replacement fees are not affected by the decision. If a book is lost or never returned, usually determined after a period of at least six weeks, or an item is damaged beyond repair, a patron will still have to compensate the library.

Amherst’s decision isn’t without a cost to the library system’s budget. Sharry estimated that around $8,000 in fines that would otherwise go to the town’s general fund will be lost in the current fiscal year.

“Staff and I felt that the amount of money taken in doesn’t justify how we are hurting people,” Sharry said.

The Jones’ $2.66 million budget this year depends on $2.04 million in taxpayer support, along with funds from the Jones Inc. endowment and fundraising.

Sharry has informed Town Manager Paul Bockelman that trustees would be pursuing this idea, though she notes it is uncertain how the lost revenue will be made up.

She said that when she was named library director in 2011, around $19,000 was collected in fines, so the total has already been sliced in half.

For fiscal year 2019, the Jones imposed $20,876 in overdue fines, of which $12,482, or 59.8 percent, was collected, with the remaining $8,394 forgiven.

Although Jones and Forbes both issued just over $20,000 in fines, waiving fines is more prevalent in Amherst than Northampton.

In addition, the amount of fines is likely to keep going down as more people borrow electronically through the C/W MARS library consortium, which instituted automatic renewal on many materials.

At Forbes, Downing said the revenue was a consideration for not changing the late fees for all users, though the $20,000 is just half of the fine total from a decade earlier, and the losses will continue through automatic renewal and the growing popularity of digital e-books and streaming services.

Element of responsibility

Even though the Jones is already forgiving about 40 percent of fines, Sharry told trustees that this isn’t done in a way that focuses on equity or social justice issues and that it is often inconsistently applied, depending on the staff member making the decision or the person making an appeal.

Trustee Alex Lefebvre said she finds a waiver is more likely to come from people who could afford to pay the fine, rather than lower-income users.

Though he voted in favor of eliminating late fees, trustee Robert Pam said he is a bit worried that the Jones is expanding the policy to all materials, not just those checked out by children and teenagers.

One of the arguments against dropping overdue fines has been that they serve to teach library patrons, especially children, some element of responsibility.

That is the one criticism Downing said she has heard at Forbes, but otherwise, there has been an appreciation for the new policy in the six weeks it’s been in place. “Feedback we’ve received has been generally positive,” Downing said.

Because the Jones is part of the C/W MARS library consortium, Sharry said existing fines on patron accounts can’t immediately be eliminated, and she added that it could take time to figure out how to do this.

“We can eliminate them on a case-by-case basis, as patrons come to the library to check out books, but this could be cumbersome,” Sharry said. “Ideally, we would be able to find a way to erase the past fines on Amherst items behind the scenes rather than doing it while helping patrons.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.Upcoming events at local libraries

Whately: Sept. 11, “Bad Sleep” book reading with Sigfried Haug at 6:30 p.m.; Sept. 26, Marvelous Meatless Meals with Leslie Cerrier at 5:30 p.m.; Sept. 29, tag sale in connection with the town’s fall festival. Table space is available for $10. Please call the library 413-665-2170 to register.

Bernardston: Sept. 21, book and bake sale at the Bernardston Town Hall, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Leverett: Tuesday music gatherings. Every other Tuesday from 6:20 to 7:50 p.m. Introductory dates are Sept. 10 and 24; Oct. 8 and 22;
Birding in Costa Rica, Sept. 29, 2 to 3 p.m.

Sunderland: Short story reading by professional actors, Sept. 17, at 6:30 p.m.; Climate change film screening, “Paris to Pittsburgh,” Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.; Kamishibai storytime, “Paper Plays” translated from Japanese into English, Saturday, Sept. 28, at 10:30 a.m.; Fall Friends of the Library book and bake sale, Oct. 19, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.




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