Boise & Garden City

Boise, Nampa libraries end fines for good, but books still need to come back

Update Oct. 2, 2019: The Boise Public Library no longer is charging for overdue materials. Checked-out books, videos and other materials will be automatically renewed five times unless the item is on hold for another patron. After that, those items are considered past due, and you cannot check out additional materials.

Fines already in place will still need to be paid, and fees for lost and damaged items will still apply.

Nampa also has a new fine-free program, while Meridian, Eagle, Garden City and Caldwell already did away with fines.

The story below was first published April 10 under the headline “Boise libraries could soon be fine-free. But you still can’t keep things forever.”

Many library users know the feeling: For one reason or another, that book you checked out a few weeks ago didn’t get returned on time.

Under the current system, patrons of Boise Public Library get a two-day grace period before late fines start rolling in at 25 cents per item per day. Under a new system set to be heard at the library’s Board of Trustees meeting Thursday, those fines could be eliminated as soon as October 1.

That spells good news for those who habitually return their books a little later than intended. Under the current policy, cardholders with more than $10 in fines are blocked from checking out new materials. The elimination of fines means library accounts won’t be blocked for that reason, which is a practice that can keep patrons out of libraries.

More than 11,000 cardholders were blocked from checking out library materials from Boise Public Library in March, said Sarah Kelley-Chase, the public services manager of the library. That number represents about 7.7 percent of the library’s 143,000 cardholders.

Kelley-Chase said not all of the details are worked out yet, but there’s a chance that if the fine-free change is approved, those 11,000 people could have their blocks lifted.

The change wouldn’t mean you can keep your books indefinitely, however.

What changes mean for you

Library materials, including books, CDs and DVDs, still must be returned under the proposed model. Accounts with overdue items still would be blocked until those items are returned, but there would be no associated fine with that return as long as it happened within 35 days of the due date. The two-day grace period also would go away with the new proposal.

Materials overdue by 36 days or more would be marked as lost, and the patron who checked out the item would get billed at that time. That bill is made up of the cost of the item plus a $7.50 processing fee. Fees are considered to be less punitive than fines, as they don’t charge patrons just for missing due dates. The current policy is similar, but fines begin to rack up outside the two-day grace period and the cardholder gets a bill after 30 days. If a material is returned under the current policy, the lost fee is waived but the fines still apply.

The proposal to drop fines follows a January resolution from the American Library Association encouraging libraries to consider getting rid of fines. Fines “ultimately do not serve the core mission of the modern library,” according to the resolution.

Monique Ziesenhenne, president of the Public Library Association division of the ALA, said that for libraries, the concern is not making money off patrons but rather the return of materials in good shape.

“You’re not running a library on fines,” Ziesenhenne said. “Ideally, fines would already be at zero because people would return all their materials on time anyway.”

Libraries across the country, including in Salt Lake City, Denver and Columbus, Ohio, have enacted fine-free programs similar to what Boise has proposed. In the Treasure Valley, Eagle, Garden City and Caldwell have made the switch. All of those libraries are a member of the LYNX! Consortium, a group of several local libraries that have a borrowing and lending agreement. Boise and a few other cities also are members.

Steve Bumgarner, library director for the Eagle Public Library, said his library has been fine-free since October 2018 and the change has “gone very, very well.”

“The goodwill generated far outweighs the small bit of revenue fines create,” Bumgarner said.

He said in the six months since Eagle started the program, he’s seen an increased number of checkouts and happier patrons.

Before the change, he saw times when parents and children wouldn’t check out books out of fear of the associated fines if they failed to return them on time. That’s not the case any longer.

Now that fines have been eliminated, Bumgarner said he has not seen an increase in return rate. He has seen, however, that life is “easier all around” for the community and the staff alike. The library staff has to spend less time on account issues and gets the opportunity to spend more time helping people.

“The change was so worthwhile,” Bumgarner said. “There have been absolutely no downsides.”

The financial cost of going fine-free

In Boise, eliminating fines would mean eliminating some of the money they bring in.

In fiscal year 2019, Boise Public Library originally anticipated $124,000 in fines but now expects that number to be closer to $70,000 “based on the current downward trend,” according to the proposal. Even if Boise Public Library were to collect $124,000 in fines, that would amount to less than 1 percent of the library’s total proposed budget of $12,950,777 for the 2019 fiscal year.

“Libraries are unique institutions in that they are not revenue-creating,” Kelley-Chase said.

That downward trend has been going on since at least 2013, according to the proposal. That year, the library collected more than $180,000 in late fines. The proposal attributes the drop since then to multiple factors, including more people using e-materials (which don’t accumulate fines), financial burden for cardholders and auto-renewal programs by other members of the LYNX! Consortium.

“It is likely that this trend will accelerate with the addition of auto-renewal therefore the FY20 budget is being built to assume $0.00 in late fines,” the proposal states.

The library anticipates great gains in what it calls “soft costs,” however. The San Rafael Public Library in California found that each transaction to pay library fines cost about 10 minutes in staff time when considering everything from processing payments to reconciliation by the finance department. Boise Public Library logged 112,542 late transactions in the 2018 fiscal year, meaning that even 10 minutes per transaction is equal to more than a million minutes of staff time.

The elimination of fines also may mean the library eventually drops its use of a collections agency, Kelley-Chase said, although that is not certain. Under the current model, any patron with an account balance of $24.99 will begin to hear from a firm called Unique Patron Service Solutions, which contacts patrons over the course of 154 days using four letters and three phone calls.

In the 2019 fiscal year, Kelley-Chase said the library will pay approximately $24,000 for the service. She said Unique reports a return on investment of $4.96 for every dollar of cost for Boise. She said the library would continue using the service for at least the first year after the library goes fine-free, if that is what happens.

“The ultimate goal is to make the library more friendly for everyone who uses it,” Kelley-Chase said. “Eliminating fines represents just one less barrier.”

The Boise Public Library Board of Trustees will hear the proposal to eliminate fines at its April 11 meeting, which is set to take place at 11:30 a.m. at the Main Library, 715 S. Capitol Blvd in Boise.

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.