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Montclair Public Library overdue
The Montclair Public Library is eliminating overdue fines. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Public Library is ditching fines for overdue books.

Last week, the library announced that it will no longer charge overdue fines for books, movies and certain other materials that are less than 90 days overdue.

The board of trustees declared amnesty for all outstanding late fees as of May 20, with the library currently in the process of clearing all debts from library users’ accounts.

The reason behind the move is to ensure that more people are able to use the library, according to officials.

Nationwide, librarians have discovered the long-held notion that late fees help ensure materials are returned on time is false, said Montclair Library Director Peter Coyl.

“The fear of fines actually discourages people from using the library,” Coyl said. “We want to encourage access to the library, especially as we gear up for our Summer Reading Program.”

The American Library Association has viewed overdue fees as an equity issue: the fees often result in people who need the library the most, including children and low-income families, not coming back. Often, they are unable to pay the fine and so they stop coming to the library, library officials have concluded.

“But the library is the one place they can get the resources they need,” Coyl said.

As of last week, of the 32,945 active Montclair Library cardholders about 36 percent, or 11,810, had accrued overdue fines. Of those, almost 20 percent had fines over $25.

The largest fine amount was not available as of May 23.

Most of the patrons waiting outside the library’s main branch on Friday morning, just before opening, had not heard about fines being eliminated.

“I didn’t imagine they collected much money,” said Nick Ingoglia of North Caldwell, adding the move was good PR for the library.

Library fines are a very small part of the library’s revenue, Coyl said. He estimated that the amount was close to $15,000 annually.

Ingoglia said its success would have to be measured in the future especially if, he joked, books suddenly started not coming back.

But library customers will still have to return books on time. Those with overdue materials will not be able to check out new items until outstanding items are returned.

“I think they should be happy that people read,” said Lorna Kanter, of Passaic. “I don’t think they need more PR. I love this library.”

Angela Crowe said the elimination of fees is good for people who may not be able to afford the late fees, but she I wondered how the library would make up the funds collected on late fees.

Going Fine-Free

In December, Coyl attended a library directors’ summit in San Diego. One director said that when she told people she was a librarian, “Their first reaction is, oh, I owe the library money.”

He said the negativity associated with overdue books and fines is hurting library use, especially among children and low-income families.

“We can’t blame children for having an overdue book if they rely on their parents or their caregivers to bring them to the library,” Coyl said.

In Montclair, an overdue book in regular circulation carries a fine of 15 cents per day. DVDs have a fine of a $1 a day. A book, overdue by a week, is charged $1.05, while a DVD, overdue by a week, is charged $7.

Coyl conferred with library directors in California, Colorado and Texas, where the institutions have gone fine-free. Library use has risen since they did away with fines. he said.

“Our customers are people. Life happens,” Coyl said. “I work at the library, and sometimes I can’t get my stuff back [on time].”

Owing fines can have a shaming effect, Coyl said. One patron had not been to the library in several years because he had a balance due on his library card, Coyl added.

The same week that Montclair announced it was eliminating late fees, the Maricopa County Library District in Arizona announced it was eliminating overdue fees at all 13 of its libraries, according to the Arizona Republic.

The move to eliminate overdue fines began about three years ago, said Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, president of the Public Library Association.

In her 30 years of working in libraries, fines have been seen as an important tool for getting materials back, she said.

In Palo Alto, where she is the library director, the library does not charge overdue fines for children’s books only. A child may check out a big stack of picture books, and if those books came back late and fines were charged, it would quickly add up, she said.

“We always want everyone to be using the library as much as possible,” she said. “For many people, an overdue item might be something they checked out to help them get a job or to help them complete a school assignment. Those fines can become a barrier to using the library.” Palo Alto officials are now looking into eliminating overdue fines for adult books, questioning if the “small amount of fine revenue” of about $40,000 is worth the effort required of library staff.

At the very least, the movement is prompting libraries to take a second look at their policies and the community’s needs, she said.

New guidelines

Not all fines are going away. Once an item is overdue for 90 days, the library will charge $30 for books and $20 for audiovisual materials.

And library users will still owe late fees on items that are borrowed through BCCLS.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by Library Journal, a library with 25,000 and 99,000 members will collect an average of $2,691 in fines each month.

“We’re not about making money,” Coyl said. “The library is a public institution aimed at serving the community. So this is our way of saying, everyone’s welcome to the library.”

CORRECTION: The story has been updated to include a more precise estimate on revenue from library fines: $15,000.