Late-Fee Debate Puts Spotlight on Library Association Policies

The American Library Association supports eliminating overdue charges, calling them a "barrier to library services." Meanwhile, its state counterpart in Wisconsin has endorsed legislation empowering libraries to use collection agencies to gather up unpaid late fees.

One California city has a $7 million problem, counted out 50 cents at a time.

This month, the city council of San Jose is expected to consider a proposal to change the way it handles late fees at its libraries. Currently, the system charges 50 cents a day for late books and a $20 fee for lost materials. When a patron’s fees hit $50, a collection agency is called in.

Those fees have now reached $6.8 million at the San Jose Public Library alone, the New York Times reports. But library associations disagree about whether fines for lost or late materials are financially punitive responses that harm low-income patrons who are most in need of library services or necessary funding to keep systems running and collections intact.

Late fees are a detriment to people using the library, says an ALA leader. Period.

“We are…very attentive to creating a barrier-free environment that enables all people to use libraries and have equitable opportunity in our country,” American Library Association president Sari Feldman told the Times. ALA identifies one of its policy objectives as “promoting the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”

“A lot of people will tell you higher fines aren’t a detriment to returns,” incoming ALA president Julie Todaro told Slate. “It is a detriment to people using the library. Period.”

In San Jose, library director Jill Bourne has written a memorandum to the city council asking it to consider a fine-amnesty program, reducing the daily fine to 25 cents, and to “revisit” the use of a collection agency. One council member, Pierluigi Oliverio, has proposed a two-week fine-amnesty program for those with late materials.

In Wisconsin, last month Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation that gave libraries in the state increased powers to use collection agencies to receive overdue fines. The bill passed in February without opposition and has the support of the Wisconsin Library Association, which emphasized the problem of lost revenue to local libraries.

“This isn’t about nickel and dime fines for items that are returned late,” WLA Executive Director Plumer Lovelace said in a press release. “This is a serious issue. More than 3 million dollars’ worth of taxpayer-owned library materials are simply not being returned to our public libraries each year, despite months of repeated notices and calls from library staff. Statewide, libraries are losing about 5 percent of their annual materials-purchasing budget.”

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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