An idea long overdue

Libraries show their love with fine forgiveness

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 8:45am

    Everyone knows that feeling of dread: you’re tidying up and come across a library book that is way past due to the point of being ridiculous. Mentally, you calculate: Will the fines be somewhere along a small mortgage payment? Do you pretend you never found it and never go to your library again?

    Luckily, a number of Midcoast libraries are finding innovative ways to assuage book borrowers’ guilt by going fine-free. The idea has been gaining traction in public libraries all over the country. A 2018 article in American Libraries Magazine “Imagine a Fine-Free Future” raised the debate of why fines should even exist.

    A panel of librarians at the 2018 Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Denver argued that fines create a burden for low-income borrowers, as well as a barrier, preventing the very people who need these resources the most from using them.

    Going fine-free has been the goal of a number of local libraries. In January, Carver Memorial Library in Searsport decided to extend their loan period from two weeks to a month and waive all current and past library fines.

    “It’s still a little too early to tell number-wise if this is having an impact, but I can tell you anecdotally, we’re starting to see long overdue materials come back,” said Sue McClintock, library director.

    After a month, the library will still charge for lost or damaged items. and borrowers with items more than 30 days overdue will be blocked from checking out anything else until the late items are returned.

    “The public relations part has been super successful,” she added. “I’m getting a lot of positive feedback about going fine free and it’s inspiring people to put money into a ‘conscience jar,’ which sits on the counter for those with late books.” 

    Children stand to benefit from these policies the most.

    “The studies I’ve read have shown that fines disproportionately impact children,” said McClintock. “One of the arguments that most impressed me is that most children have little to no control over returning materials to the library. And, if a child has a lot of overdue fees, it’s not really teaching him or her responsibility. Most of the time that falls to the parent or guardian to return items on time. Maybe they are too busy, but then if parents start to feel embarrassed by the fines or thinks it’s too expensive to borrow items, then they stop using the library and the child misses out on all of the opportunities that a library can give.”

    The first full week of March is national “Return Borrowed Books” week.

    “We’re going to use that week to really push the concept of bringing your library books and materials back; nothing bad will happen,” said McClintock. “We’re a community resource for everybody.”

    Throughout February, Belfast Free Library has announced it is waiving overdue fines for patrons who donate non-perishable food items.

    “It’s an incentive for people to clear up their records, get fines forgiven and also raise food donations for the local food banks,” said Steve Norman, Library Director. “It’s a win-win. People are starting to come back in; they’re less reluctant to use the library again if they feel they can clear their fines and give something back.“

    For more information visit: Carver Memorial Library and Belfast Free Library

    Kay Stephens can be reached at