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Library Board's Decision to Eliminate Late Fees Reflects Larger Trend

Apr 14, 2021

Pending City Council approval, the Omaha Public Library Board of Trustees has voted to permanently eliminate fines for items returned past their due date. The measure does not affect fines for damaged or lost items.
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It has been more than a year since the Omaha Public Library has charged a late fee for an overdue item. The policy, which was adopted at the beginning of the pandemic, may now become permanent. The Board of Trustees voted unanimously on the measure last month, and the decision is now pending City Council approval. The elimination of overdue fines is a growing trend among libraries across the county to improve equity and access to library services. Courtney Bierman spoke to OPL marketing manager Emily Getzschman for more.

The elimination of late fees and overdue fines is a growing trend among libraries across the country. So why did Omaha Public Library decide to get on the bandwagon?

We've been talking about going fines-free for quite some time. And originally, it was kind of for our younger library users. So we were looking at ages 0 to 18 and how much that impacts them. And we talked to our board about it, and we were kind of building a case for why we should do away with fines. But then of course we have this pandemic, and we stopped charging overdue fines last March when the libraries closed due to the pandemic, and we have not started back up again.

And what we are realizing, and what our board was able to see, is that it didn't make a significant impact on our budget, and it didn't significantly impact people bringing materials back or not. So that helped kind of push us in that direction. And knowing that we were going to be able to remove that barrier for a lot of families was just the icing on the cake. So for us, it was kind of a no-brainer, and we were really happy that our board decided to approve that resolution and move it on to City Council.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how the elimination of overdue fines contributes to improving access?

For a lot of families, you know, the daily overdue fines — I think it was 25¢ a day — that can just add up over time, and at some point you get a cap. You've got so many that your account can get blocked. And for a lot of people that don't have the money to pay for it, they simply don't come back. And they may not return those materials because they are frightened of punitive actions toward them. So we end up losing materials, we have ill will between the library and patrons, and then the people who need it the most are not coming back in. So this is just removing a barrier to access for people who may be fearful about coming into the library because they can't pay the fines.

You mentioned this a moment ago, but I think the section of the budget that overdue fines contribute to, it's like less than 1 percent.

Correct. Nationally, the American Library Association has come out and said we encourage libraries now to get away from charging fines. But nationally, it makes up about 1.5 percent of a library's budget. For us, it was a third of a percent. So really not going to impact us in a terrible way. And what we've seen across the country with libraries who have done away with this, the goodwill that is built is made up for in donations and just the library of materials that are getting returned that weren't getting returned before. You're not having to spend as much.

I'm not saying that's a huge amount — but this also isn't a huge amount of our budget. And there are a lot of people who are just wanting to pay regardless of the fact that they don't have to pay. So they're just making donations to libraries, saying, “I was late with this. I was delinquent. Let me make it up to you in some way.” And they're just making donations, which is very kind. It's not necessary, but it's very kind. So I think that there will be a way to make up that very small percentage of our budget.

Do you expect to actually see an increase in the number of items that are returned late?

Everyone else that has done this has seen an increase in materials coming back overall. They are not seeing that people are not returning their materials in a timely fashion. There are certainly going to be people that do not return their materials on time, but those are people that would not have returned their materials on time anyway. So that's what we're finding or seeing across the country with libraries that have done this. So we do expect that we will actually see more materials get returned than we would have where people who just kept them because they're not coming back into the library at all.

And just to clarify, this is only taking care of the daily late fees. It does not account for if an item is just never returned, if it's lost or if it's returned damaged.

That's correct. So we've been very emphatic about saying this is daily overdue fines. So if your library book is a day or two or three or four days late, you're not going to get charged for that. But if your library book never comes back, after 21 days we are going to say that item is missing, and you're going to be charged for replacement. So there are still incentives for people to bring stuff back. That's been kind of our biggest thing, people saying, “People can just walk out of the library and not ever bring those things back. It's just free books.” That's not the case. We do want you to bring those materials back. You will be charged for them because we have to pay for them, and that's taxpayer dollars.

So we do have some reason for people to bring them back. They don't want to pay the replacement fee. But overall this is not what is happening. Overall, we're seeing that people really want to use the library and bring their materials back. But life happens sometimes, you know. They pack them up in a box when they're moving and didn't get them in on time. They went on vacation and forgot. But if you drop it in the bathtub, yeah, you're going to get charged for that. So we do want the materials back, but if you're late a few days we're not going to make a big deal out of it.

And it's retroactive as well, right?

Right. That's where I want to be very clear. Some people don't know what the existing fines on their account are for. If they are for daily overdue fines, those will be retroactively absolved. If they are for other things, those will not go away. If you have an outstanding balance on your account for something that was lost, damaged, whatever it may be, those will stay. You'll still be responsible for those fees.

I don't know how familiar you are with this, but there is some research that suggests charging late fees actually costs libraries more money in terms of the amount of labor it takes to recover those items and process late fees. So that being said, do you expect this to have an effect on day-to-day operations at OPL?

I am familiar. I hope it does. I hope it does in a good way. I hope that this actually does free up more time where we're not having these conversations with patrons at the desk about, you know, “You can't do you can't check this out because your account has been blocked.” We don't want to have those conversations. We want it to be a good conversation and a good experience for both of us. So I'm hoping just on that day-to-day stuff. 

I've read so many articles about libraries that actually spent more money on collections than they did on getting the money back. So it didn't even offset what they were owed. And that's not necessarily our case, but I do think that this just will make for a better relationship between the library and its patrons. I think it'll be nicer and that we can actually focus more on the things that we're there to do and not worry about fines and fees as much.

The actual contribution to the budget of overdue fines, like you said, is less than 1 percent. Is it going to be a challenge to find the money to replace that? Or is it so insignificant that it doesn't matter?

No amount of money for the library is insignificant. We will have to look for other sources, but as I said before, we're hoping to get more materials back so that there's not money actually being spent on other materials that just went lost. And we are also hoping that there's just a goodwill feeling between us and the community. There's a lot of families that just kind of planned on having to pay those overdue fines. And there are going to be people that still pay, but they don't ever actually owe. And we're hoping that that makes up for that shortfall.

A voluntary contribution in lieu of a mandatory one.

Yeah. We do have two nonprofit groups that support the library. We are a city department. So we do receive taxpayer dollars as our primary budget, but we also have a library foundation and the Friends of the Library. And people are welcome to make contributions to either of those organizations that directly benefit OPL.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If people have questions about it, some of this will have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. People aren't going to totally understand what is a daily overdue fine versus a fee. Why is this item billed? What happened to my account? And we do encourage everyone to work that out with us on a one-on-one basis and not get upset if they don't understand why their fees didn't get wiped out. It may be for some other reason. Or maybe it was an oversight.

We will work through this with our patrons, but we're really excited to work through that with them. Because I think there are going to be a lot of people that are just feeling relief about being able to use the library again, especially our youngest users. They don't have money. They don't have jobs. So taking this away from them, we're really excited about that and just think we're gonna get a lot of library users and some goodwill in our community.

Library patrons are encouraged to contact their City Council representative to encourage them to support the resolution to eliminate overdue fines. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.