When Verona eliminated its daily library fines a year ago this month, it joined a trend sweeping libraries across south central Wisconsin – and the rest of the country.
Communities including Sun Prairie and Fitchburg have already removed late fees, while places like Stoughton and Madison are considering the move. With a year of this approach under Verona’s belt, libraries going fine free are able to look to the city as one example of how the change might affect them.
Stacey Burkart, Verona’s library director, told the Press in an email she thinks the change has been a good one, without major negative effects.
In particular, Burkart wrote, the library has not experienced a large loss of revenue as a result of the policy.
“For the past several years, we’ve been increasing our fundraising efforts,” Burkart wrote. “Since we’ve been fine free, donations have increased nearly by nearly the same amount as the lost fine revenue. I can’t say whether that is a coincidence or the result of increased goodwill towards the library.”
One of the most important positive effects of going fine-free, according to Burkart, has been the change in interactions between library users and library staff.
“The staff really appreciate that interactions with the public no longer center around paying library fines,” Burkart said. “Now staff can focus on more positive interactions and helping people access the information and services they need.”
She said she felt the change in policy had effectively increased access for those patrons who need the library the most.
Burkart wrote that the library does not have numbers on how quickly books have been returned since the fine free policy when into effect. However, she said that immediately after fines were eliminated, the return rate went up significantly and stabilized thereafter.
Still, the policy has not resulted in a dramatic increase in circulation numbers, one of the reasons often cited for removing fines.
“In 2018, the library circulated about 460,000 items and it looks like we will circulate a similar amount in 2019,” Burkart said.
This is in line with recent trends, Stoughton Library director Jim Ramsey said in a presentation he delivered to that city’s library board Nov. 20 on the potential effects of going fine free. Ramsey said large urban public library systems saw huge gains in circulation rates, while smaller libraries stayed the same or witnessed small increases.
Burkart said the Verona library had seen about a 1.3 percent increase in visitors for the months in which it had data available, but due to the main door being closed for repairs for about two months, information was not available on visits for this period.
Based on Verona’s experience, Burkart encouraged other libraries in the area to consider removing their fines, as well.
“If you are financially secure, then paying the library $10 in overdue fines probably does not have much of an impact on your day-to-day life. But if you are struggling to make ends meet, then that $10 could be gas in your car or food on the table,” Burkart said. “We want people to use the library and be able to bring their children to the library and eliminating daily overdue fines removes a barrier to library use.”