By ditching overdue book fines, MRL becomes part of trend in Virginia and U.S.

By Sky Wilson, contributor

Massanutten Regional Library announced Dec. 1 it would permanently eliminate fines on late books. (File Photo)

With its decision to eliminate fines on overdue books, Massanutten Regional Library joined an increasing number of Virginia libraries on the front end of a nationwide trend aimed at dropping barriers to borrowing books and other resources. 

Michael Evans, the library’s director of advancement, said he expects this change — which the library announced Dec. 1 — will have a positive effect. 

For instance, he said the hope is that it will prompt an increase in library cards and higher circulation of materials across the system. In addition to the Central Library in Harrisonburg, MRL includes branches in Elkton, Grottoes, Bridgewater, Luray, Shenandoah and Broadway. 

“The library only exists if people are using the materials,” Evans said. “As a public library, the goal is to have a collection that is actively circulating.”

And while the fines could add up to take a chunk out of patrons’ wallets, they accounted for only a small part of the library’s funding.

Overdue fines account for $30,000 of MRL’s roughly $2.5 million annual budget in 2020. 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the financial situation of many patrons as well as library procedures. The library “quarantined” books upon their return, which only complicated the process of tracing overdue dates. That prompted the library’s Board of Trustees to discuss eliminating fines. The board suspended fines in May and made the changes permanent in mid-November.

MRL will continue to charge fees for copying and printing in the library, and patrons would still have to pay for lost or damaged books. Books still have due dates. If a patron has too many overdue books, that person might temporarily lose library privileges, which would be restored once the materials were returned. 

“It had been six months since we had collected any fines, and the world was still working,” Evans said. “The transactional nature of overdue fines is something that does not serve our patrons well and does not contribute meaningfully to our bottom line.” 

Some other Virginia libraries have come to the same conclusion, as Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia LIbrary Association learned in an informal survey of library leaders. 

Of the 94 Virginia library systems, 21 library leaders responded and nine said their libraries are permanently ‘fine free’ as of November 2020, including Augusta County Library, Staunton Public Library, Waynesboro Public Library and Blue Ridge Regional Library, Varga said.  

“I’ve seen a number of Virginia libraries going ‘fine free’ in the past several years,” said Lisa Varga, Executive Director of the Virginia Library Association, “I’d say it’s happening more now because there’s been time to explore it.”

Most of these systems eliminated fines in the first half of 2020, although Richmond County Public Library has been ‘fine free’ since as early as 2013, according to the survey results. Several libraries began by removing fines in response to COVID-19 before adopting the policy permanently, just as Massanutten Regional Library did.  

Eleven others reported that their library systems had temporarily eliminated fines as a result of COVID-19. Most noted that this change was not permanent — yet.  

New library cards ready to be issued. (File Photo)

A national trend

The history of “free libraries” in America is more than a century old, with many major library systems implementing it in recent years, including Nashville, Chicago, San Diego and Baltimore. The Urban Libraries Council has made an interactive map of ‘fine free’ libraries in 47 states.

The American Library Association, the largest library association in the world, states the mission of a public library is “to provide free, equal, and equitable access to information in all its forms,” and that “many policies and procedures may disproportionately harm those having financial difficulties, experiencing homelessness, or those from marginalized communities.” 

In 2019, that national association adopted a resolution to “promote the removal of barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”

In 2017, trade magazine LibraryJournal surveyed more than 450 public libraries and found that 34% were considering doing away with fines. 

At Massanutten Regional Library, a majority of negative interactions between library circulation staff and patrons have begun with an overdue fine, Evans said. Going fine-free could lessen stress on both sides and allow more visitors to use the library without fear or embarrassment, he added. 

Discarded books are taken to the library’s book sale or donated to Booksavers of Virginia. (File Photo)

Libraries’ fragile bottom lines

The reason many other Virginia libraries continue to charge overdue fines is simply a financial one, said Varga from the state library association. Most public libraries depend solely on funding from their city or county government to operate, meaning that they are subject to shrinking municipal budgets. 

In the next couple of years, Varga said public libraries will likely have to brace for budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s lasting economic effects. Libraries are often among the first cuts to a local budget, she said.

“This will have devastating effects for the people who need libraries most,” Varga said. 

The Massanutten Regional Library system, however, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit funded partially through the localities of Harrisonburg, Page County and Rockingham County as well as by private funding from patrons and donors. It is one of only a handful of non-profit libraries in the country — and might be among the first to become “fine free.” 

Library officials hope to replace the income from fines with additional fundraising efforts, such as its online fundraising drive

Evans said many new donors have contributed to the library since the decision to go remove fines this summer. 

And Varga said MRL’s decision underscores how libraries seek to help the people they serve in many ways.

“MRL is showing that they are doing what they can to best serve their community — to ‘inform, inspire, and connect,’ when the world feels upside down,” Varga said, citing MRL’s slogan.

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