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Keep your nickels: St. Louis city and county libraries are dropping late fines

Keep your nickels: St. Louis city and county libraries are dropping late fines

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Library patrons in St. Louis won't have to worry anymore about racking up a nickel or more a day for overdue books or movies. Past-due fines are a thing, yes, of the past.

Directors at both St. Louis County Library and St. Louis Public Library will announce Tuesday that they are eliminating those irksome late fees for books temporarily forgotten under the bed or magazines hiding in a pile of papers. If patrons return items, even late, the penalty is changing from fee to free.

"Fines don’t seem to be an incentive for people to bring back material," said Kristen Sorth, director of the county system. But feeling guilty about fines can keep patrons from using the library, she said Monday.

"We want them to use the material, and we want them to bring back the material."

For Waller McGuire, director of the city system, "We’ve been associated with those nickel-and-dime fines for so long. When we wash those away, we say the library really does belong to the public."

The library directors, joined by St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Sam Page, are planning a news conference Tuesday morning at Central Library on Olive Street.

In announcing the conference, a news release Monday emphasized regional cooperation and the benefits to residents. 

Page said in the statement: “Our libraries are among our greatest assets in St. Louis County and City. I commend the two districts for coming together and opening the door to learning even wider by eliminating overdue fines.”

Although the county library system took in about $130,000 last year in fines, that amount is a very small part of its annual $53 million budget, Sorth said. 

The city library took in even less: about $72,000 in fees, McGuire said. Its budget is $25 million.

The effort to collect fines wasn't worth it, he said, and the fees can prevent scofflaws returning to what is a tax-funded public institution: "Our research says fines are an annoyance for the financially secure and a real obstacle for the financially insecure. And they are a real barrier to everybody."

Dropping library fines has been a growing trend across the country. The Kansas City Public Library announced last summer it would eliminate fines. A few smaller local libraries have done so, including those in Collinsville and Fairview Heights (the Mississippi Valley Library District).

Starting Jan. 1, University City Public Library is not assessing fines for all (it had already cut fines for youngsters 6 and under), said director Patrick Wall. "It's been a real movement in the library world." The library has not yet announced its new policy to patrons.

The American Library Association passed a resolution early last year urging libraries to study their policies and eliminate fines, saying, in part, the fees are "discriminatory in publicly supported institutions providing library and information services.”

But just because libraries are dropping late fees doesn't mean patrons who keep material will have unlimited access. After a few weeks, library cards will be frozen if items aren't returned. Lost and damaged items must be paid for before a cardholder can check out the latest movie or ebook. 

That includes people at the top. Sorth said her poodles recently damaged a book her son had checked out from the city library system. "That won't get wiped," she said.

She owes the city 19 bucks, and McGuire confirmed that he's hardened to the excuse "the dog ate it." Lost and damaged materials still must be reimbursed. 

Since 1964, the city has charged 5 cents a day for overdue books he said. (The county has charged 15 cents for books; $1 a day for materials such as DVDs, telescopes and Wi-Fi hot spots.) 

For the city, a coveted wedding planning book by Martha Stewart seems to be the item patrons hold onto too long, along with test-preparation materials for jobs like firefighters. Sorth said the county library sometimes misses items from bookmobiles: Perhaps parents were unaware of the checkouts by their kids, she said.

In the city, all past overdue fines will be forgiven. In the county, patrons will need to pay off 2019 fines.

Both systems say patron usage has trended upward, with the county estimating it checked out a record 16.2 million items last year, Sorth said. Some of the growth is due to the relatively recent policy of automatic renewal of materials.  The automatic renewals also had already cut the amount of fees libraries were collecting.

The city and county systems have reciprocal lending agreements, so the city's 80,000 active users may include patrons who live in the county. Last month, both systems' boards of trustees voted to approve the plan to drop fines. 

Having some similar policies makes library rules easier for St. Louis residents to understand, Sorth and McGuire said. "Often people don't realize that the library systems are managed differently," McGuire said.

Cooperation between the systems is in everybody's interest, he says. In addition, the lack of fines may change the way people feel about them.

"I hope it helps all of us think of libraries in a different way."

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