A year after eliminating fines for most items, Eau Claire’s public library has reinstated thousands of membership cards and saw a decline in long overdue books.
After axing fines in January 2018 — except for some new releases and equipment rentals — L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St., reinstated 5,232 cards of members who weren’t allowed to check out items because they had more than $10 in fines.
“The decision was not a difficult one when we saw that over 5,000 library cardholders — including over 1,000 youth — had been blocked from using the library, some of them for years,” library director Pamela Westby said. “No fines means more opportunities for members of the community, and that’s always a good thing.”
While fines seemingly would be the stick encouraging people to return books on time, the library has seen more long overdue items returned during the past year.
“That’s where we’re really happy to see the decrease,” said circulation manager Paula Stanton.
Items that have been 75 days overdue — the point at which the library views them as gone — has dropped 4.5 percent.
More long overdue items are being returned, Stanton believes, because patrons no longer face the $5 maximum fine per book that used to be imposed in those cases. For some people, $40 in fines can be unaffordable and they’d opt to not check out from the library, she said.
There has been an increase in books that are one to two days past due, Stanton noted, but the ones that are long overdue are what costs the library money in replacement costs and preparing a new copy for the shelves.
While most fines are gone, members still do get their cards blocked when they have an item that’s 28 days past due, which can be resolved by returning the item or paying for a new one. However, the amount of cards blocked due to overdue materials is down 3 percent compared to last year, according to the library.
Katie Sullivan, circulation desk clerk, also said cutting out fines has allowed her to spend more time helping people versus serving cashier duties.
“Going fines free has meant less time spent with the cash register and more time face-to-face with customers,” she said. “We want to see people leaving happy with armloads of library materials, not empty-handed and disappointed.”
Westby attributed removing fines to a spike in materials checked out at Eau Claire’s library while others have seen their circulation numbers decline.
In the past year, the library has also seen 6.8 percent growth in the amount of items checked out. There were 806,086 items checked out in 2017 and 860,923 last year.
The local library still does charge late fees for equipment including Wi-Fi hotspots, iPads, Dabble Box kits, knitting needles, ukuleles, video equipment and a small selection of just-released books and movies.
The library collected about $70,900 in fines in 2017, according to city budget books, and only expects to get $10,000 from fines this year.
Westby tied the library board’s decision in late 2017 to eliminate most fines to a Colorado State Library report that stated “library fines and fees for overdue, damaged and lost materials are barriers that prevent low-income parents and caregivers of young children from using libraries.” That report also found no evidence that small daily fines are an effective way of reducing overdue rates.
Since Eau Claire’s decision, 14 other regional libraries have eliminated late fees. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter even cited L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library as an example of success when deciding to end late fees at his city’s public libraries.