| Ames Tribune
In an effort to provide equitable access to its materials and services, the Ames Public Library is no longer charging fines on items its patrons are late in returning, the library announced this week.
The fine-free policy, which the library board officially approved in October, has become increasingly popular across the country as hundreds of public libraries have adopted similar strategies in the past year, according to Sheila Schofer, Ames Public Library director.
“Equity and access are core values for libraries and play a big role in our new Strategic Plan,” Schofer said in a news release Tuesday. “Overdue fines disproportionately penalize people with lower incomes and can even keep them from using the library.”
Other Iowa libraries have made similar moves: The Des Moines Public Library eliminated fines on Nov. 16 for all children and teen materials. The Waterloo and Cedar Falls libraries nixed late fees on the first day of 2020.
“Overdue fines do not turn irresponsible patrons into responsible ones,” stated a January 2019 report by the San Francisco Public Library, which the Ames library referenced in announcing the change, “they only distinguish between patrons who can afford to pay for the common mistake of late returns and those who cannot.”
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The report says overdue fines disproportionately affect low-income communities.
“Certainly as a career librarian, I’ve seen that,” Schofer told the Tribune. “I’ve worked in communities that have been impacted by fines. You see how that stops a child from checking something out or makes a parent cautious.
“Or people who are embarrassed to come back in or ashamed and will avoid the library. And they don’t know that we’ve always been easy to work with, but sometimes there is a little stigma that people feel.”
The Ames Public Library extended due dates and suspended fines when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The library closed in March and has been offering curbside and lobby service.
“The vast majority of patrons have used and returned items responsibly, just as they have in the past,” Tracy Briseño, the library’s customer account services manager, said in the release. “Many have been thrilled to find that losing track of due dates in this chaos didn’t rack up huge fines, which could be especially hard to pay right now.”
Although the library is ceasing overdue charges, it will continue to charge for lost or damaged items.
“The goal is still to get materials back so more people can use them,” Briseño said in the release. “We will still be sending reminders, and accounts will still be blocked when their charges reach the limit. But those charges will represent real, physical items that can be returned to get your account back in order.”
During the pandemic, the library has been an important resource for patrons who work or go to school remotely, Schofer said. Resources such as online homework help and Wi-Fi hotspots have helped make that transition easier for Ames residents.
The library recently received a $6,000 grant from the Story County Community Foundation to help purchase an additional 30 Wi-Fi hotspots.
“They’ve always been popular,” Schofer said. “We recently shifted those from being a one-week loan to a one-month loan, so having the extra devices has really helped with that. It’s really helped us meet that need.”
The library also boosted its Wi-Fi signal when the pandemic hit and patrons couldn’t come into the building. The signal can be accessed even from the parking lot, Schofer said.
“We’re trying our hardest to make sure people can still access the information they need,” Schofer said.
The library’s board has adjusted the budget to account for the cessation of overdue fees, she said.
“In reality, overdue fines represent less than 2% of our budget,” Schofer said in the release, noting that those wanting to the “move towards greater equity” can donate to the Ames Public Library Friends Foundation.