When a child receives their first library card, they often learn two things. First–the card is a window to the rest of the world, to endless knowledge and adventure found in the pages of books. The second? If you return those books late, you’ll be charged a fee. That’s no longer the case at the Sitka Public Library.
That’s the sound of a scanner at the Sitka Public Library circulation desk. Every day, the scanners beep hundreds of times, as librarians record each book that’s checked out. In May alone, Sitkans checked out over 5000 items at the library.
Books get scanned a second time when they’re checked back in. But not all books come back right away. Until this week, patrons who didn’t return their tomes on time would owe a fee. Now, as long as the book is brought back in decent condition, it’s fine-free.
Library Director Jessica Ieremia said the decision to ditch late fees is part of a nationwide trend. Anchorage’s library got rid of fines last year, and she says that most other libraries in Alaska have scrapped them too.
“And we’re just one of a handful of libraries left that are still charging overdue fines,” she said in an interview with KCAW earlier this week.
Under the previous policy, Sitka Public Library charged $.05 cents a day for overdue books, and a dollar a day for DVDs. If a library patron accrued too many fines, they’d be barred from checking out items until they paid down the account. Ieremia said the fines created a barrier for people who wanted to access the library.
“If you are someone who has more disposable income, that’s not a problem. But if you do not have disposable income, it prevents you from coming in for many different reasons,” she said. “Some people are just embarrassed and they can’t come and pay it off. So they just don’t even come at all. They may not even allow their kids to come because they’re afraid they will accrue late fines that they cannot pay…that’s just, you know, sad.”
The revenue from late fines makes up less than one percent of the library’s operating budget. Ieremia estimates that the money they earn in fines (in FY19 around $5663 was collected in overdue fines) doesn’t offset the costs in staff time. The library user policy was also revised to ease some other requirements.
“Before you had to have a proof of a permanent residence. That would come in the form of a voter’s registration, an electric bill,” she said. “Not everybody in the community has that. Some people have unstable housing, some people are couch surfing. Some people are just brand new to town, and they’re really trying to get their feet on solid ground, trying to find housing. We would still like them to be able to come to the library and get a library card.”
When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday, it unanimously approved the changes without debate or pushback from the public.
“If you have, if you have overdue books, just bring them back,” she said. “Bring them back in and come back to the library.”
The revised policy isn’t totally toothless though. The library also loans out equipment like laptops and projectors– those still have late fees, and patrons will still be required to pay for books that are lost or damaged.