Erie County Libraries Going Free: How Will It Work? | Local News


Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries no longer charge fines or detention fees for library materials.

Does this mean that people can continue to remove materials from the library without returning them and without suffering any consequences?

And how will the library system compensate for this loss of revenue?

Here are some answers and an explanation of why this is happening now.

As previously reported, the Buffalo & Erie County Library System ended its policy of charging fines for late library materials and eliminated hold fees for popular materials that library patrons library request to be delivered to their local branch for pickup. While the policy “officially” ends on May 1, in practice fines and fees were wiped from library cardholders’ accounts at the end of March, administrators said Thursday.

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Starting May 1, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System will waive fines for late materials. According to Acting Director Jeannine Doyle, the library system has already settled all outstanding daily fines in library card user accounts, as well as unclaimed hold and pick up fees.

In addition to no longer having to pay fines, people who don’t return an item on time will have their borrowed items automatically renewed up to three times, as long as someone else isn’t waiting for the item. Library patrons will receive an automatic renewal notice by email or phone.

The library system‘s new director, John Spears, said research has shown that library fines don’t encourage people to return books early. They simply prevent the poor from using the library system.

“A $3 fine for someone who is well off is really a convenience tax,” Spears said. “A $3 fee for someone more economically disadvantaged could make the difference between being able to take the bus to work or being able to buy lunch.”

The abolition of fines is a trend. Spears, a Chicago native who led Colorado’s Pikes Peak Library District, said those libraries began eliminating fines for children’s materials, and then adult materials, in 2017 and 2018.

When the fine-free system was first rolled out, he said, his libraries initially saw a 1% increase in late returned materials.

Within a week or two, items were being returned within the same time frame they were returned before the system was put in place with no fines, he said. It’s a common experience among library systems that have eliminated fines, he added.

The benefit of eliminating fines and fees is that many libraries are seeing an increase in returned materials. And more and more people who stayed away from libraries for fear of not being able to pay what they owed are starting to return, he said.

Libraries have experienced a decline in library visits and circulation of physical materials for years. When Covid-19 shut down libraries for part of 2020, those declines diminished further. Only digitally downloaded books, audiobooks and music which are automatically returned at maturity continued to see growth in circulation, according to library system statistics.

As a result, overdue fine money has been an increasingly smaller slice of the library system’s revenue pie.

A decade ago, revenue from fines and fees brought in more than $627,000, or 2.5% of the library system’s operating revenue, Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Stone said. This figure had dropped by 10% in 2019, then dropped in 2020.

Last year, the library system received less than $245,000 in fines and fees, less than 1% of the library system’s operating revenue. and was estimated to fall even further this year.

The good revenue that will be lost this year is offset by increased state funding for libraries, Stone said. Suburban libraries that relied on some of that money to pay for local maintenance and repair costs will now see those costs covered by the central library system.

When it comes to liability, library patrons who cling too long to their materials are always subject to consequences:

• If an item is more than 21 days late to be returned, their accounts will be charged for the full replacement cost of that item. This fee will be waived if the material is returned later.

• Cardholders must still pay to replace lost or damaged hardware.

• Library accounts will be blocked if a cardholder is 15 or more items overdue, or if the cardholder accrues more than $50 in material replacement charges.

“Now if they bring the materials back, we’ll waive the fee and they’ll be back in good standing,” Spears said. “So there are still mechanisms to incentivize people to bring the materials back.”

Spokeswoman Joy Testa Cinquino said she’s overheard a few library patrons wondering if eliminating fines will make people wait longer to access popular books and other materials because those who preceded clung too long to the articles.

She said library staff will monitor demand for the most popular books and DVDs. If waiting lists get too long, staff can order more materials.

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