More Libraries in Kansas Are Accepting That You Don’t Pay Late Fees – The Kansan


By Suzanne Perez ksnewsservice.org

WICHITA, Kan. — Kate Webb and her 2-year-old son, Teddy, sat in the children’s section of Wichita’s Advanced Learning Library watching an educational animal sound video on a color monitor live.

“What is that?” Teddy asked, pointing.

“It’s an owl,” her mother said. “Ooooo, oooo! »

The pair sang along to a chorus of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” then headed to the picture book shelves, where Teddy gathered a pile to check out.

“He’s my COVID baby, so this is our first time here,” Webb said. “His big sister loves this place.”

Libraries in Kansas are finally open for business as usual, and many are encouraging readers to return by eliminating overdue fines and releasing customers from debt. In particular, this could increase the use of libraries by people with the lowest incomes.

The State Library of Kansas tracks statistics for 320 library systems. Of these, around two-thirds do not charge fines for overdue materials – and the number is growing.

“It’s definitely a trend that builds over time, and the pandemic has something to do with it,” said Cindy Roupe, acting state librarian.

Most libraries that have closed branches or reduced hours during the pandemic have decided to suspend outstanding fines, Roupe said. “Then some libraries said, ‘Let’s make this permanent. “”

The Wichita Public Library Board recently approved a plan to eliminate late fees. The Wichita City Council will have the final say on the plan during budget discussions this summer.

“It’s really something that’s based on the fundamentals of how libraries have always lived, which is to make sure everyone has access to it,” said Jaime Prothro, library director at the town. “We’re looking at how we can re-engage community members who don’t use us regularly – or haven’t for many years.”

About half of Wichita residents have a library card, Prothro said. But right now, about 44,000 of them can’t verify documents because they owe more than $10 in fees.

When library officials mapped those fines by address, they learned that households in lower-income areas of the city owed the most. That means late fees drive away groups that will benefit the most from free resources, Prothro said.

“Many communities are looking at the financial and racial equity that this kind of change can have,” she said.

More than three quarters of children in the Wichita School District are entitled to a free or reduced price lunch, which is an indicator of poverty. Prothro said eliminating library fines could help early literacy efforts.

“When we reached out to schools and spoke with students, their parents often prevented them from getting this card because of concern about the overhead of borrowing,” she said.

The Urban Library Council says that nearly every state in the country has at least one fine-free public library.

The Kansas City, Missouri Public Library dropped late fees in 2019 with a policy it calls “Freedom from Fines.” That same year, the American Library Association issued a resolution calling fines a form of “social inequity” and urging libraries to find ways to eliminate them.

Lawrence Public Library became fine-free in January 2020, saying eliminating punitive fines for lateness “removes a barrier to access and ensures everyone can learn, connect, create and grow – from equally”.

Lawrence borrowers are still charged for lost or damaged items, but the fee is waived for lost items returned in good condition.

Under Wichita’s current fee structure, the library charges 25 cents per day for books and most other items past their due date. Blu-rays and DVDs are $1 per day.

It may not seem like much. But if you visit the library with several children and they each borrow several books, late fees can add up quickly.

“One of the…philosophies behind it is to really recognize that people have lives. People lead busy lives and the role of the library is to remove as many barriers as possible so that people can borrow freely and without worry,” Prothro said.

In October, the Wichita Library System waived its 25-cent hold fee to reserve a book or transfer it to another branch. Prothro said more and more people are browsing the online catalog and placing more reservations.

If late fees are eliminated, customers would still have due dates for the materials they borrow. But they would have a two week grace period to return the item without penalty. After that, they would be required to return the item or pay replacement fee to check more materials.

“It really takes the worry away from our borrowers, in that ‘I’m going to make a mistake in my life and then I owe money.’ I think everyone hates that,” Prothro said.

A 2019 study showed that libraries that don’t pay fines see no significant difference in return rates. After a Colorado library system eliminated overdue fines in 2015, officials reported that 95% of documents were returned within a week of their due date.

Along the same lines, libraries with amnesty programs see large numbers of lost or long overdue items returned after the fear of fines subsides.

Eliminating late fees would reduce Wichita library revenue by about $13,000 a year, she said, or about 5% of its overall budget. But library officials say the benefits to patrons and staff would outweigh the financial blow.

“I suspect it’s costing staff more time trying to get these fines than what they’re bringing in,” said Roupe, the state librarian. “It’s staff time that could be better spent doing other things.”

The late fee amnesty could result in Wichita residents returning nearly 30,000 unreturned items worth more than $570,000. But more importantly, said Prothro, the Wichita librarian, it could get them back in the doors.

“We want to be the busiest place in town,” she said. “It’s the only place in our town where you’re not expected to spend money. You can come here, take a book off the shelf and sit here and enjoy. You are welcome here. Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.

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