Northeast Oregon libraries bucking nationwide trend of charging late fees

The Pendleton Public Library continues to charge late fees for overdue books.

LA GRANDE — The majority of local libraries are holding on to the tradition of fines for overdue materials. But for how much longer remains a question.

Returning a book or other items days late means a fee on your library account. Most of these fees do not exceed 10 cents a day, but with each passing day, the cost adds up. Some libraries are dumping overdue fines. According to a survey in the Library Journal, 8% of libraries across the nation have stopped charging patrons for not returning books on time.

“When you have fines, you are making the library less accessible to those who benefit the most from using it,” Cook Memorial Library Director Kip Roberson said. “According to studies that are being published in library journals, fines hurt low-income people and children the most. These are also the people using our libraries as part of their personal development, and with fines they can’t access these services.”

Local libraries cap fines at a maximum of $5 on the account, and prohibit checking out more materials and using library services until the fines go below the threshold.

“There is a fear and stigma around overdue fines,” Roberson said. “People are afraid it will get above an amount they can pay, or that the librarian will yell at them.”

However, Roberson explained, many librarians are very understanding, and the most important thing to the library is getting back the materials. On a case by case basis, librarians may forgive fines, depending on the circumstance that went into the late return.

La Grande’s Cook Memorial Library is considering eliminating late fines in the coming year, Roberson said, a decision that would ultimately come from the La Grande City Council.

Doing away with fines raises the concern people won’t return the materials at all. However, according to a study conducted by the Library Journal, a majority of libraries that have eliminated fines still receive their materials.

The Cove Public Library does not charge overdue fines, while the Union Carnegie Public Library, Elgin Public Library and Cook Memorial Public Library do. The all-volunteer Library Improvement Club runs the library in Cove. Improvement Club member Yvonne Oliver said the volunteers have chosen not to have late book fines for the last 15 years. These libraries still charge fines for lost and damaged books. The North Powder City Library did not respond to inquiries about fines in time for publication.

The public libraries in Pendleton and Hermiston continue to charge fines for overdue items.

“When people have to pay fines, they are more likely to bring their books back on time,” Pendleton Public Library Director Jennifer Costley said.

“Fines can be an encouragement or a punitive punishment,” Hermiston Public Library Director Mark Rose said.

They also said they do not see fines as a barrier for preventing patrons from using the library, and by having the fines, there is a sense of personal responsibility.

For some libraries, the money from fines helps pay for materials, staff and services. The Pendleton Public Library uses the revenue from fines to pay for a part-time position and additional programming. Costley said the library in 2018 collected around $17,000 in fines and replacement costs. Smaller local libraries do not collect as much, but the money is part of their funding, some relying on it for everyday operations.

Libraries often lend more than just books, and many libraries have adopted programs for all ages and provide services and materials that help with learning. For people who don’t have access to a computer at home, using a computer at the library can be a way to stay in touch with family and friends or look for employment. But overdue fines can block these services.

During the winter, Cook Memorial Library offers an opportunity to pay off fines using food donations. Patrons can donate up to 10 food items to pay off their fines, with each item taking a dollar off their total.

“It’s a way to help patrons out during this time of year when money is tight,” program organizer Carrie Bushman said. “And it helps those in the community by stocking the sharing pantry for those who can’t afford food.”

Other alternatives for reducing library fines include amnesty periods where books can be returned and slates wiped clean; donation boxes where people who might feel guilty about returning a book late can donate money; and pay-it-forward options in which a person can donate to cover the cost of another patron’s fines.

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