Three Linn County libraries to eliminate fines for overdue materials

The Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 5th Avenue SE — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The public libraries in Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha and Marion are moving forward with the elimination of fines for overdue materials in an effort to better support and serve the community.

The policy change has been approved by the boards of trustees of all three libraries. Cedar Rapids Public Library (CRPL) director Dara Schmidt said the next step is to figure out the details and the best way to make the transition smooth for patrons. The change is expected to take effect in July 2020, which is the start of the next fiscal year.

The three libraries make up the Metro Library Network, which allows patrons to access materials that any of the libraries own. The libraries also work together to cooperate on policies so patrons have a “seamless library service,” Schmidt said.

“We’re here for service to the community, and we can’t justify any more this policy that’s existed practically since the beginning of the public library in the 1800s that nobody has ever really looked into to see if it actually does what it’s supposed to do,” Schmidt said.

Around 500 public libraries across the country have gotten rid of their fines, according to the CRPL’s fine and fee policy report that was presented at the Dec. 5 Board of Trustees meeting.

Libraries in West Liberty, West Branch and Ely have eliminated their fines. Iowa City Public Library eliminated fines for children’s and young adult materials earlier this year.

As of June 2019, more than 16,000 patrons in the Metro Library Network have had their library cards blocked due to outstanding library fines or fees. About 12,000 of those people are in Cedar Rapids, according to Schmidt.

“That’s absolutely unacceptable,” Schmidt said. “We’re here for the people. We want our citizens to be able to be patrons of our libraries, and they want to, too. They’ve used the library. They actively used the library, and then they were told, nope, you can’t use it anymore because of these late [fines].”

In its report, CRPL mapped the addresses of the blocked cards and found that majority of the individuals live in low-income areas.

Map of blocked library cards in Cedar Rapids. Many of the blocked cards are in low-income census tracts. — courtesy of the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s fine and fee policy report

Schmidt said the feedback so far to the policy change has been mostly positive, but there are individuals concerned about books being lost or never returned.

In their research, the CRPL found that libraries without fines don’t have a significantly different return rate for items than libraries with fines.

“The overdue fines are just one tiny portion of an overall materials retention and stewardship policy that the library has,” Schmidt said. “So we’re changing one small piece of that process that has been researched and shown to not actually work.”

What the libraries are proposing is as long as the book is returned within a grace period — possibly six months — there will be no charges. After a certain point, however, the patron will be charged for the lost item and blocked from checking out more materials until the item is returned or paid for. There will be increased reminders sent out to patrons to ensure they are aware of the due date.

It has been costly for the CRPL to keep up with collecting fines. In the 2019 fiscal year, fine and fee revenue was slightly more than $78,000 but collecting the fines was almost $57,000, resulting in a net revenue of $21,400. The library anticipates the revenue will continue to decrease as the popularity of digital materials increases.

The three libraries have also been participating in a Food for Fines program, where patrons are able donate nonperishable food items to lower their fines.

While this program will likely go away once the Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha and Marion libraries eliminate their fines, Schmidt said there are still ways for the library to partner with community agencies and collect food. She worked at a library 10 years ago that went fine free and did a Food for No Fines program instead, in which individuals donated extra change saved from a lack of fines.

The no-fine policy will begin in July — fortuitous timing, Schmidt said, as is it coincides with the summer reading program.

“That’s our great hope,” Schmidt said about the lack of fines potentially boosting summer reading. “Right now we’ve got families not participating in [the summer reading program] because their library cards are blocked, and we would be so excited to welcome to kids and families back in the summer.”

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