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The antechamber of the Mesquite Library in Phoenix, Ariz., is full of natural light and potted palms. Sporting a ball cap, Valerie Jones strides through, but turns back to give her opinion on library fines. Would a library without overdue book fines help her? “Yes!”
Jones has a 6-year-old son who checks out 20 to 30 books at a time. She encourages his appetite, but when it’s time to return the books, it’s impossible to find them all. Whatever she doesn’t return incurs a fine. The fines build up, her library account is blocked, and she can only afford to pay in installments. The result: Her son stops checking out books.
Starting in November, this will no longer be a problem. The “All Fines Forgiven” initiative at Phoenix Public Library branches such as Mesquite will remove daily fines for overdue books and forgive existing balances. Patrons still have to pay a replacement fee after 50 days, but if they return the book, the fee is waived.
Phoenix isn’t the first city to end library fines, but it is the biggest so far. About 200 other library systems in the United States have become fine-free. In January, the American Library Association passed a resolution encouraging all libraries to do so.
Eliminating fines evokes a mixed response from patrons. Some, like Jones, welcome the idea. Others, mostly older patrons, worry people will become irresponsible and stop returning books. (Nobody seems to anticipate personally becoming the problem.)
Phoenix is the county seat of Maricopa County, and the county library system, which went fine-free in May, reports no problems with book hoarders yet. Other libraries generally report that removing fines actually increases circulation. Their position: People recognize the value of a library, are responsible, and understand they are borrowing.
Phoenix Public Library spokeswoman Lee Franklin says fines disproportionately affect low-income households and those without books. She has seen parents who bring children to the library to read but tell them, “We can’t take that home.” She hopes removing a potential financial barrier will make books more accessible.
Yolanda J., who works at a Phoenix branch in a low-income area, agrees: Patrons approach her desk to ask what fines they owe. Often when they hear their balance, they turn around and leave. But patron Doyle Magouirk, who wears a gray beard, has a different perspective: When he goes overdue, he keeps the book until he accrues a large fine. When he gets his monthly paycheck, he pays his fines: “That’s how I donate to the library.” Right now he owes $11.50 and intends to pay before the fine is forgiven.
Carol Romanchuk is happy to see fines disappear because she’s always late, and the money doesn’t directly benefit the library: “I used to think it went toward new books, but then I learned it just went to the general fund, so what’s the point?”
Romanchuk is right. Phoenix Public Library currently collects about $200,000 a year for overdue books, money that goes into the city’s general fund. The Maricopa County library system, funded by property taxes, already has a program to help municipal libraries. When Phoenix joins the fine-free movement, the county will supply the city’s libraries an additional $170,000. So, since money in the city general fund may not return to the library system, the new policy might help it financially.
Still, the next time politicians propose raising taxes to help libraries, voters will know they’ve already given up one revenue source.
—Victoria Johnson is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course