Mountain View library eliminates overdue fines

Megan V. Winslow/Los Altos Town Crier
A patron gets her receipt after returning items to the Mountain View Public Library. The library recently stopped charging overdue fines.

Starting this month, the Mountain View Public Library has stopped charging overdue fines on its materials. The Los Altos Library, which is part of the Santa Clara County Library District, still has fines, but the district may consider removing them in the future.

The library district has debated nixing fines in the past, communications director Diane Roche said, but so far decided in favor of leaving them in place. However, that decision isn’t necessarily final.

“We will continue to look into this and see if this is really the best solution for our patrons,” Roche said.

The county library system comprises a number of area libraries, including Los Altos. However, Mountain View is a standalone library.

According to Tracy Gray, director of the Mountain View library, the move to eliminate overdue fines is part of a broader shift that a number of libraries nationwide have taken, which aims to make libraries more accessible.

“A lot of California libraries have looked at fines and fees over the last few years to determine if they are really doing what they were originally supposed to be set for,” Gray said.

Originally, library fines were created to preserve scarce materials. However, Gray said that as more and more items move online, scarcity becomes less of an issue.

Instead, fines can be a barrier that stops patrons, especially those with low incomes, from coming to the library, she said.

A study conducted by the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco treasurer found that library fines disproportionately affect low-income patrons, African Americans and those without college degrees.

Gray said it is important to make libraries accessible to as many people as possible, including those with fewer financial resources.

“They’re typically the people who need libraries the most,” she said. “If they can’t afford to buy books, they rely on the library to get their materials.”

The San Francisco study also found that libraries that had gone fine free didn’t see late returns increase. When the Salt Lake County Library eliminated fines, late returns actually dropped from 9% to 4%.

Even though the Mountain View library no longer has overdue fines, Gray said patrons are still encouraged to return books on time so that they more people can use them.

“We have a great community here that I feel values our resources and values the idea of items being available to everyone,” she added.

Although Mountain View decided to stop imposing overdue fines this month, previous fines will remain on patrons’ accounts. As of June, the library had approximately $100,000 in outstanding overdue fines on youth and adult materials.

Last fiscal year, the library made about $56,000 from overdue fines.

However, overdue fines aren’t the only fines the library assesses. Those other fines and fees will remain, including charges for lost or damaged items, as well as a fee for items put on hold that aren’t picked up.

Fines remain in Los Altos

For now, the Los Altos Library continues to charge overdue fines, as is the policy at all libraries in the Santa Clara County Library District. However, there aren’t overdue fines for children’s materials or for adults 65 and older, which Roche said is different from most library systems.

The idea is that getting to the library can be more of a challenge for both children and seniors.

“We want to be a welcoming place for everyone, but especially for children. We exempt them from those overdue fines because they are reliant on someone else to get them to the library to be able to return their materials,” Roche said.

The reasoning is similar for seniors – transportation and mobility issues are more common and can make getting to the library difficult.

The policy on children’s items dates back more than 20 years, while the exemption for older adults was officially enacted several years ago.

The library district continues to follow the conversation around overdue fines and may revisit its rules in the future.

“We’re always looking at what are the best practices and policies that we can implement to make the library accessible to as many people as possible,” Roche said.

However, she noted that it’s also important, “that we’re getting materials back, that we are being respectful with the funding that we have available.”

Because the library district is mostly funded with taxpayer dollars, she said its collection needs to be carefully managed.

However, Roche said she is mindful of the fact that fines can pose a barrier to access.

“We know that those fines or those fees affect people differently, depending on their circumstances,” she said.

Librarians also have the flexibility to waive late fines on a case-by-case basis.

“If they have a hardship and they come in and talk to us, we try to be as fair as possible to all of our patrons,” Roche said. “So if there are some extenuating circumstance, then sometimes our staff can waive those late fines.”

The library district also began a Food for Fines program last year, which was continued this spring. Patrons could wipe out up to $100 in fines by donating nonperishable food items, which were given to Second Harvest Food Bank.

Between both years and across the library district, more than 14,000 patrons had more than $280,000 in fines and fees waived.

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