Kathy Farnham of Topsfield admits that her children might not always be diligent about returning library materials on time - but they come by it naturally.
“I haven’t taught them very well,’’ she said with a laugh. “I’m not great about returning my own library books.’’ Asked to estimate how late her items usually are once she brings them back to the library, she paused, and then said, “Probably two weeks to a month.’’
If Farnham lived in a nearby community such as Danvers or Beverly, this habit could cost her money in fines. On the other hand, if she lived there, she might not be quite so casual about it.
As a user of the library in Topsfield, though, Farnham hasn’t paid a single overdue fine in the eight years she’s lived in the town.
Although to many users nationwide, the idea of paying overdue fees is as integral to the fabric of the public library system as Dewey decimal numbers or signs asking for quiet, Topsfield and many of the other communities north of Boston are part of a fast-growing trend in which libraries no longer charge for late materials.
For example, in the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, only nine libraries out of its 35 member institutions still charge fines on books, according to executive director Larry Rungren, who said that each library within the consortium sets its own policies. Seventeen of that consortium’s libraries charge for overdue materials such as DVDs but not books. Libraries that do not charge fines typically charge a replacement fee for an item after it remains in a patron’s possession for a certain amount of time.
And although the trend is just starting to take hold in other parts of the state, several have been doing this for years. Perhaps none quite as long as the J.V. Fletcher Library in Westford, though, which did away with fines in 1971.
“At the time, it was considered extremely uncommon,’’ said Westford library director Ellen Rainville, who started working at that library a year later. “Now, more towns are joining us.’’
But even after 40 years, it’s not a decision whose permanence is taken for granted by Westford officials, which is why Rainville runs the numbers every few years to review the costs and benefits. The last time she was asked to do so was in 2008, when her data showed once again that balancing the administrative and infrastructural costs of collecting fines - staff time, change boxes, bookkeeping costs, even coin wrappers - weighed against the potential income, makes it essentially a zero-sum game.
And it’s not just a matter of revenue, said Rainville: the question of whether patrons should pay fines cuts to the heart of her deepest beliefs about the purpose of public libraries. “It’s somewhat philosophical,’’ she said. “In Westford, we have a customer service policy at the library that says we put the customer first and are committed to going out of our way for our customers. By virtue of that policy, the interactions we librarians have should be pleasant and helpful, guided by an intent of leading people to whatever self-fulfillment, cultural growth, or reading adventure they are seeking when they come to the library.’’
Charging fines runs counter to that mission, Rainville says. Besides, the guilt or apprehension over owing a fine might prevent residents from visiting their local library altogether - and, conversely, the awareness that they will not be punished gives them a sense of ownership in the institution. “People are so appreciative that, as they perceive it, they’re not being penalized for their busy households, multiple jobs, kids’ sports schedules, attempts to hold it all together,’’ Rainville said. “They appreciate feeling like they are not being judged by the public servants whose salaries they [as taxpayers] pay.’’
Nonetheless, there are still some libraries that operate on a more old-fashioned system, particularly those in more populous communities. In Haverhill, library director Carol Verny anticipates no changes in the current system of charging twenty-five cents per day on all overdue print materials and one dollar a day for overdue VHS and DVD materials. However, Haverhill is somewhat rare in that library fines would go straight back into the library’s accounts, rather than to general municipal funds as they do in most communities. As Verny sees it, by charging fines, “we are raising funds to extend the collection. The city of Haverhill does not adequately fund its public library. There have been a lot of cuts in recent years because Haverhill struggles, just as many towns and cities do, with unexpected costs and reduced revenues. Fines and fees have traditionally been part of our library’s culture, and we have no plans to stop them. We need the money.’’
Amesbury’s public library straddles the line between the two approaches: books and other print materials do not accrue fines, while DVDs and video games do. And Amesbury resident Jane Ward said her daughter is surprised when she uses a library in a neighboring town and has to pay a fine. “People in this town are used to not paying,’’ said Ward, past chairwoman of the library’s board of trustees. “In fact, our library director is now talking about revisiting the policy of charging fines on other materials such as DVDs.’’
Some libraries leave it to the discretion of the user by putting out a donation box into which patrons can deposit whatever fee they feel appropriate - what the Amesbury library calls a “conscience box.’’ This box does not present the same kind of bookkeeping challenges that Rainville indicated because the money goes straight to the Friends of the Library as a donation.
Amesbury library director Patty DiTullio believes that going fine-free is the wave of the future in her profession. “I feel that our mission should be about access. Sometimes people will not return items because they’re afraid of fines. It may end up leading to more loss of materials, rather than getting materials back in timely fashion, as was intended. Sometimes, once people start accruing fines, they’re reluctant to use the library at all. That runs counter to our mission, which is to design policies that enable people to use the library more easily, not less.’’Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.