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Why a growing number of Long Island libraries are rethinking late fees

Victor Caputo, director of the Roslyn library, shown

Victor Caputo, director of the Roslyn library, shown with assistant director Deepa Chandra, said overdue fees had been charged for most of its nearly 142 years of operation, until 2018. Credit: Howard Schnapp

More and more Long Island libraries aren’t fine with overdue fines.

At least 55 of the 110 public libraries in Nassau and Suffolk have abolished, or curbed, the practice of charging patrons for returning circulating items late, according to each county’s library consortium.

Levying late fines at public libraries dates back generations, but eliminating the practice began to gain popularity several years ago as a way to encourage library patronage and welcome those who feel alienated by the looming cost of a late return. A resolution adopted in 2019 by the nonprofit American Library Association called fines inconsistent with "the core mission of the modern library."

The COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting closures and suspensions of service, led library systems to hasten the trend, with some wondering why the practice of charging late fees endured in the first place.

What to know

  • At least 55 of the 110 public libraries in Nassau and Suffolk have abolished, or minimized, the practice of charging patrons for returning circulating items late.
  • Eliminating the practice began to gain popularity several years ago as a way to encourage library patronage and welcome those who feel alienated by the looming financial cost of a late return.
  • There is far from universal agreement over the wisdom of abolishing fines, or how to do it: among those libraries changing policies in recent years, some are exempting only certain categories of borrowers or materials.

There is far from universal agreement over the wisdom of abolishing fines, or even how to do it: among those libraries changing policies in recent years, some are exempting only certain categories of borrowers or materials from accruing penalties.

A 2017 nationwide survey of systems in Library Journal, a trade publication, found 92% of respondents reporting collecting fines for overdue items. That survey was done before the library association's resolution, and that number has declined over the subsequent years.

Fine-free policies have taken hold in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Dallas and beyond. Last Tuesday, all three library systems in New York City announced that overdue fines were becoming a vestige of the past.

'An artificial barrier that's not really necessary'

In Suffolk, said Kevin Verbesey, director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, the county’s consortium, at least 40 of the 56 libraries are fine-free in some capacity. Thirteen of them abolished fines during the pandemic and have not restored them. Six of the 40 libraries have a hybrid policy, with fines waived for kids, seniors, homebound people, juvenile collections, older books, or some combination of them.

"Libraries are about lending things out. They’re not about restricting things. And this is another barrier to people borrowing items from libraries, and it’s one that is an artificial barrier that’s not really necessary," Verbesey said. "There may have been a point in time where it made sense, but now, a growing number of libraries, not just here in Suffolk, and Long Island, but nationally, see this as an unnecessary boundary towards people using their local library."

Fines are also less necessary nowadays, he said, because libraries automatically renew books indefinitely until an item is no longer eligible for renewal, and e-books stop working after the due date.

In Nassau, at least 15 of the 54 libraries have eliminated fines, or reduced who or what qualifies for a fine, according to Nicole Scherer, assistant director of the Nassau Library System, that county’s consortium.

The Bellmore, Port Washington and Roslyn libraries have eliminated fines entirely, indefinitely. At least 11 Nassau libraries now have a hybrid policy, and several libraries plan to resume fining, or already have resumed it, after suspending the practice during the pandemic. At least three library boards are considering eliminating fines, with a fourth considering a move to a hybrid-fining model.

In Suffolk, since 2016, library fees — which also include charges for lost items and photocopies — have gone down every year, from about $1.8 million in 2016 to about $1.3 million in 2019 and about $880,000 in 2020.

Equivalent figures were not immediately available for Nassau.

In both counties, patrons are still charged for lost items — libraries presume an item lost after a predetermined period of being unreturned — and borrowing privileges can be suspended for failing to pay. Fines follow the item, so that a patron whose home library is fine-free would still owe a fine if an item is returned late from a library that charges fines. And while fines are being eliminated for traditional library items like books and DVDs, they continue for the so-called Library of Things — such as computers or Wi-Fi hot spots.

No meaningful change seen in timing of returns

Libraries that stopped charging fines say they’ve seen no meaningful change in the pace or timing of returns; if anything, patrons are more likely to give a book back on time.

"Where we saw the change was in the interaction in the circulation desk," said the Roslyn library director, Victor Caputo, whose library abolished fines beginning in February 2018. Pending fines were wiped from borrowers’ cards.

The library, which is Nassau’s oldest continuing library and is named for the poet, journalist and Roslyn resident William Cullen Bryant, had been levying fines for most of its nearly 142 years of operation, Caputo said.

In 2018, before the library stopped charging fines, it was $1 a day for a late DVD and 25 cents a day for a late book, said the assistant director, Deepa Chandra.

On average, the library would collect $8,000 a year in fines for an organization with a budget of $5 million. Having to haggle and argue with patrons over a few dollars in fines here and there, he said, just wasn’t worth the hassle.

"It alleviated so much bad will at the desk," he said.

In fact, Caputo and Chandra said, patrons have begun returning long-overdue books, some after many months of having them in arrears. Caputo said that since 2018, there's been an 80% drop in items being returned late to the library.

Andrea Niederman, a spokeswoman for the Port Washington Public Library, said the library went fine-free beginning in January 2020 for youths, and then fine-free beginning with the pandemic for everyone. Existing fines were wiped, she said.

Asked how the library is making up for the loss of the revenue, she said that the amount collected in fines, about $8,000 compared to a $7 million total budget, was so low that library operations weren’t impacted.

A lesson beyond the library

Most libraries in Nassau County are keeping fine policies in place.

One of them is the Roosevelt library, whose director, Lambert Shell, said that fines impart a lesson beyond the library.

"It’s like a credit card," he said. "It just teaches kids responsibility."

Fines start at 5 cents a day and can go as high as 25 cents a day, he said. The library collects less than $500 a year in fines on average, he said. The library’s budget is about $3.1 million.

In practice, Shell said, the library tends to waive fees anyway, including through a "Read Down Your Fines" program for youths. Those fines tend to accrue from borrowing DVDs and failing to return them on time. Kids take out material; some parents don’t even know.

"We’re not looking to get 20, 30 dollars from a kid. We may tell a kid, ‘OK, if you’re hanging out in the library every day, come in here, for every half an hour you read, that’s $2 off your fines,’" he said.

Libraries weren’t always so forgiving. In 1961, Newsday reported, an arrest warrant was issued for an 11-year-old girl in Hicksville over a $5.98 fine for failing to return "Country Bunny and the Little Gold."

Of course, it’s not just kids who run afoul of library policy. Sometimes, even librarians accrue fines.

Deepa Chandra, Roslyn’s assistant director, confessed that before the pandemic, she had to pay a fine to her home library, Half Hollow Hills, for a cookbook she returned late.

Starting during the pandemic, that library also went fine-free, too.

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