New Hanover County’s public library system eliminated fines for late books and other library materials this summer.
The change, which aims to promote equal opportunities for library users, came into effect at the beginning of July. Getting rid of fines, particularly late fees, is a national movement among libraries that began more than a decade ago in 2010 and has spread ever since, according to Paige Owens, director of the New Hanover County public library system.
“That’s a wave,” Owens said. “So many libraries across the state and most libraries that are similar in size and usage to New Hanover County are already free.”
Owens, who became library director in 2019, said the idea of cutting fines is attractive because it could benefit both library users and library staff.
In a presentation to New Hanover County executives earlier this year, Owens estimated that library staff spent approximately 780 hours processing 15,606 overdue fines over a six-month period last year. For employees, collecting fines also makes interactions with customers “more confrontational,” Owens said.
In 2019, the American Library Association issued a resolution that viewed fines of any kind as an “economic impediment” to library use and stated that libraries “need to take decisive and pragmatic action to dismantle levying practices.”
“By removing these barriers to entry, we are truly becoming library spaces that truly serve everyone,” said current American Library Association President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada.
Owens and other library staff began looking at how other North Carolina libraries handled fines. Then, in the last fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, the library system ran a “test case,” making its children’s collections royalty-free.
The library system initially delayed removing the late fines because it wasn’t clear how the move would affect book returns, Owens said, but after the late fines were removed, the library saw children’s book circulation increase nearly 14%.
Building on this success, the library system decided to ask the New Hanover County government to eliminate late fees for all materials by incorporating the action into the system’s more than $6.43 million budget. The library still charges for lost media.
In compiling the proposal, Owens found that approximately 15,000 library patrons in New Hanover County owed approximately $97,000 in overdue library dues. In addition, approximately 2,500 library accounts were suspended for charges of $10 or more. The library system recently increased the fine required to block a card from $10 to $25.
The late fees and suspended cards are disproportionately impacting library users in low-income areas of New Hanover County, Owens said.
“We found that many of the individuals who had their cards suspended for overdue fines were concentrated in areas of the community that are more challenged and have difficulty accessing services,” she said.
A map showing the concentration of fined library accounts shows that the accounts are concentrated in census counties with a relatively low median income, including areas on Wilmington’s Northside.
“These are people who live close enough to walk to the main library and are probably not using the library because of overdue fines,” Owens said.
Anecdotally, concerns about late fines affect families the most, as children often check out multiple books at once and it can be easy to collect late fees. Owens said library staff know families who don’t use the library because of overdue fees and have heard parents tell their children they can’t check out books to avoid the possibility of accumulating a late fee.
New Hanover County had expected to collect $45,650 in late library fees this fiscal year, which began July 1, 2022. Eliminating those fines will force the system to make up the difference through cost-saving measures in other parts of its operations, Owens said.
The public library systems in Pender and Brunswick Counties still levy fines on materials returned after their due dates. However, Brunswick County Library director Patricia Dew acknowledged that the library system may be subject to fine-free testing in future budget cycles.
“The thing about libraries is that they’re very, very local,” said Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the American Library Association, “so it’s very much up to each individual community how libraries operate and how they do theirs make policies and decisions. ”
Owens said she hopes removing late fines will remove a barrier that could prevent some from checking out library materials and using other library services.
“It’s not about the money. It was never about the money. It’s about getting our materials back,” she said. “This is a goodwill gesture to say, ‘All is forgiven, come back to the library.’ “
Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]