Springfield plans to join dozens of other libraries across Oregon in eliminating late fines.
And as part of a five-year levy renewed in 2020, Eugene has eliminated late fees for children and teen books as it seeks to increase access and deliver on other promises.
Libraries have pivoted to serve the public more equitably and be a community center as the coronavirus pandemic has impacted many financially and socially, directors told officials during recent meetings.
“Since the library closed in March of 2020 because of the coronavirus, we’ve not been charging library fines,” said Emily David, director of Springfield Public Library.
Eugene’s libraries have been a “lifeline for the community,” said Will O’Hearn the city’s director of library services.
“On the first day we opened the library, fully, physically back in August of 2020, we had someone who couldn’t access their bank account since March of 2020 … and we also had an unhoused individual share they were so relieved to be able to check back with their family online because they’d only been able to check in once or twice since March of 2020,” O’Hearn said.
Officials praised the libraries, with Springfield officials largely supporting the library advisory board’s wish to go fine-free and Eugene officials giving staff a “choir of kudos” for their work during the pandemic.
Fines 'undermine a library's purpose'
A lot of libraries around Oregon and across the country have stopped charging fines, David said.
In fact, around half of the state’s public libraries have gone fine-free, said Clyde Miller, a member of the library advisory board who served as chair until the beginning of the year. That includes the Fern Ridge library district, the Lane library district in Creswell and the Siuslaw public library district.
One fundamental characteristic of libraries is to create equitable access to basic information, Miller said.
Because of that, he said, while fines are common, they “actually undermine a library’s purpose.”
Fines cause inequity and loss of patrons, materials and availability of items and lead people to have antagonistic relationships with the library, he said.
There’s a higher risk of people not returning items with fines, he said, and “even when items are returned, fees make them come back slower, not faster.”
Fines account for less than 1% of the library’s budget, Miller added, and it actually costs more in staff time. It takes the equivalent of one-quarter of a full-time staff position in time to deal with fines, he said.
And it’s taxing on staff members to deal with irate patrons, he said.
Miller’s presentation quoted unnamed library staff saying that a hostile interaction over fines can “affect a staff person for the rest of the day and make them wary of interacting with that patron in the future” and that it’s been “such a relief” not to deal with fines during the pandemic.
The library board has proposed a “happy medium,” Miller said, where the library would automatically renew checked-out materials three times then give a 30-day grace period before revoking access. The library wouldn’t renew a held item, he said.
People could get access back by returning the item, providing a replacement or paying to replace the item, Miller said. That might mean fees, he said, but those would be to cover actual costs rather than being punitive.
The library will be clear and transparent about the new policy, he said.
Officials generally supported the idea but had some concerns.
Councilor Marilee Woodrow said it’s “a good way to go” but confessed that, for her, automatic renewals are a rationale for being lazy about returning a book.
The new policy “might allow some people to take advantage,” Councilor Damien Pitts said, saying he’s also worried people might check out books about race, gender or other topics surrounding diversity and equity and not bring them back as a form of protest.
“I hope people are courteous enough to return things if they are physically able to do so,” Pitts said.
David said people try to take books from the library even with fines as a possibility.
She also assured other councilors that there will be plenty of notice about the new policy and said the staff tries to have “multiple touchpoints with patrons.”
Eugene library 'showed up through the pandemic for our community'
Eugene library staff also have shifted to adapt during the pandemic, O’Hearn said.
City Manager Sarah Medary gave staff kudos for “how they showed up through the pandemic for our community,” saying the library has been “involved in so many things that keep us going.”
The library used funding through a five-year levy approved in 2016 to offer more programs and services, more hours and access and more materials and technology as promised, O’Hearn said. The levy was set at $2.7 million for 5 years, he said, and the library budgeted and spent $2.2 million in the most recent fiscal year.
That fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2021, was the final year of the original levy, but voters renewed it for another five years in 2020.
From the first day, he said, the library increased hours at the Bethel and Sheldon branches and restored Sunday morning hours at the downtown library. That’s meant an additional 40 hours of hours per week, he said.
Library staff also increased access by:
Making cards available for free to all 4J and Bethel school district students
Eliminating fines for youth items
Installing a special type of sound system for use by people with hearing aids and automatic door openers
Using bilingual communications
Adding Wi-Fi tables and charging stations
Offering counter service
The library also has, with the exception of the pandemic, increased programming by a third, O’Hearn said.
The collection is back to pre-recession levels, too, he said.
Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, the library added more than 75,000 new materials, O’Hearn said.
That puts the collection size at 1.28 million items, he said, with around 38.8% available in person and the rest housed online.
Staff now are focused on maintaining and diversifying the collection and expanding digital resources, he said.
As a crucial service to the community that became more important during the pandemic, the library has offered 500 mobile hotspots, O’Hearn said. Half of those are in circulation and “almost all continuously checked out,” he said, and the others are loaned to organizations that help people in the unhoused community and other marginalized groups.
That's more than any other library in the state has available, he said.
Officials praised the library and the public for supporting services by approving and renewing the levy.
“I think this is a great investment,” Councilor Emily Semple said. “It was a really wise decision on the part of the public, and it’s paying off in so many ways.”
Others praised staff’s ability to think outside the box and the host of services offered and otherwise joined in on what Councilor Alan Zelenka called a “choir of kudos.”
Contact city government watchdog Megan Banta at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MeganBanta_1.
This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Eliminating late fines, using levy dollars and more library updates