Fine Free Libraries map

A map of fine-free libraries currently in the United States created by the Urban Libraries Council.

Stoughton library director Jim Ramsey has been watching for several years as the trend toward eliminating library late fines gathers momentum across the country.

But he says it was a conversation with a Stoughton Area School District teacher that made him realize it was time to address the issue in Stoughton, too.

The teacher told Ramsey she fears accruing daily charges at her nearest library location, he said, so she started traveling to check out books at other libraries in the South Central Library System that have gone fine-free.

The regional and national trend toward fine-free libraries, as well as experiences like the teacher’s, have Ramsey and the Stoughton library’s board of directors exploring the possibility of removing fines for late items.

In a darkened meeting room in the library basement on Wednesday, Nov. 19, the board of directors kicked off that exploration as Ramsey gave his first presentation, a PowerPoint peppered with charts and statistics on the subject, to a small group of directors and members of the public.

Ramsey began with a quote from Curtis Rogers of the Urban Libraries Council.

“Overdue fines are not distinguishing between people who are responsible and people who are not, rather they are distinguishing between people who can and cannot use money to overcome a common oversight,” Ramsey read.

Ramsey explained, both in the meeting and in an interview with the Hub, that the presentation was merely his attempt to give the best possible information to the board for it to consider. He emphasized this is where public libraries across the country are going.

Fine-free policies at libraries are not meant to be synonymous with borrowing materials indefinitely. In his presentation to the board, Ramsey said that most libraries with this system still charge for lost materials, a classification often given after weeks have gone by without them being returned.

Often, those charges are forgiven once the book is returned.

Ramsey told the Hub that overdue fines currently make up about 1.9% of the Stoughton library’s revenue. It’s not a big percentage, he said, but it’s enough to fund a large part of a staff member’s salary.

According to its website, the Stoughton Public Library’s fines are 20 cents a day for most adult materials and 10 cents a day for juvenile items. For some items that are particularly in demand, fines can go up to $1 a day.

Jim Danky, a resident who attended the meeting, said he was fully in support of eliminating fines. The board came to an agreement that the proposal of going fine-free deserved additional study and more discussion with city officials.

Eliminating barriers

One reason why libraries are ditching the late fees for borrowed items is an attempt to bring people back to the library, and encourage people who don’t have the money to pay fees to patronize their services.

Ramsey said this was especially important as circulation rates drop or stagnate at most institutions, largely in response to the rise of use of streaming services.

Ramsey started as Stoughton’s library director in April after seven years as the head of the adult services department at the Middleton Public Library, which has been fine free since at least the 1970s, Middleton director Jocelyne Sansing said.

Sansing said an analysis of Middleton’s usage showed it to be the busiest library in the South Central area, and she thought that had something to do with its fine-free policy.

Having fines can create shame and embarrassment over fines that people cannot afford to pay, Sansing said.

Removing the fines, “really incentivizes (patrons) to bring things back and keep using the library,” she said.

Although Middleton was an early adopter of the fine-free model, the trend has spread quickly across the country and the region in recent years.

In October, Chicago’s public libraries became the largest public library system to eliminate daily overdue fines. Closer to home, Fitchburg, Sun Prairie and Verona public libraries have done away with late fines. The Wisconsin State Journal reported Madison is currently considering it, as well.

The American Library Association passed a resolution in support of the practice in 2018, which states that fines create a barrier to providing information services and urges libraries to “scrutinize their practices of imposing fines on library patrons and actively move towards eliminating them.”

Ramsey said that before going fine free, a common worry has been that books will be kept for long periods by patrons, resulting in excessive wait times. However the experience of some other libraries have shown this is not usually an issue.

Sansing said that in Middleton, the majority of all materials are returned within a week of their due date. The Chicago Tribune reported that libraries in the Chicago system saw a whopping 240% increase in book returns after fines were eliminated.

“They have a civic sense of responsibility to share with people in their community,” Sansing said of library patrons.

Budget impact

For those present at the meeting, the most pressing concern was what a fine-free model would mean for library revenue.

Sansing said at Middleton, the missing revenue was made up for by staff time that is not dedicated to hunting down books and processing fines.

When questioned about what impact going fine-free would have on staff time and its revenue, at the meeting, Ramsey said determining this ahead of time at Stoughton would be a “difficult calculation.”

Ramsey also cautioned that going fine-free might not result in a massive increase in circulation. His research showed that changes could be significant for larger, metropolitan libraries, but for neighboring libraries in Dane County and similarly sized communities, the increases were smaller.

“A lot of directors I’ve spoken to say, ‘Don’t expect this to be a huge shot in the arm,’” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said he thinks another economic consideration is likely to push the Stoughton Library in the direction of eliminating fines, however, as funding is tied in part to circulation.

Patrons can use cards at any library in the SCLS. Being the last holdout as other libraries go fine free could affect Stoughton’s funding if local patrons go elsewhere to avoid overdue fees, Ramsey said.

Ramsey said in some other library systems, the idea of going fine-free worried local officials over lost revenue, leading them to be unsupportive of the proposal.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that all stakeholders should be informed, if not convinced,” Ramsey told the board.

But with trends in the region heading in this direction, Ramsey said, “We need to be prepared for it.”

Renee Hickman can be contacted at renee.hickman@wcinet.com.