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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Overdue fines and the Library Budget

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, April 18, 2010

Last summer, as the library was dealing with the 31 percent cut in the Public Library Fund enacted by the state, an obvious place to look for funds was the fees and charges made for various things around the library.


I know that some people think that libraries operate on the overdue fines that we collect; but they are actually one percent of our total budget.


Overdue fines are an incentive to motivate people to return things they have borrowed from the library, and provide a little revenue for the library budget.


They do work, ask a public library who has experimented with dropping overdue fines, and they will tell you that people love it, for awhile.


Then the reality hits that there are so many things not returned to the library, and try to reinstate fines once they have been dropped.


In Sept., the library leveled the overdue fines charged on all materials checked out of the library system to be the same for all items and all library cardholders.


The exemption of children from fines was ended.


Those changes had no impact on library usage, 2009 was another year banner year of library use.


We also instituted a $ 3.00 charge on the placement of loan requests with other libraries, beyond the 6 million items in the shared database that we use.


Those requests do take staff time, and shipping costs beyond our contract transportation costs.


We changed the out-of-state fees for a library card to $ 10 per year, but that also had no impact on the number of out-of-state library cards issued, which has averaged 1,500 for many years.


So guess what?  The total revenues from overdue fines and all these other charges went down slightly in 2009.


We increased a variety of charges and lost money on the deal.


I remembered what a “seasoned librarian” told me over 30 years ago, “you can nickel and dime ‘em to death, but you won’t raise the amount of money that your library will receive.”


Her contention is that people view libraries as a sharing of information, and overdue fines as a necessary evil to encourage the return of things borrowed from the library.


Increase the fines, and people will be more careful with their books … for awhile.


We did receive more donations than past years, as people read the plight of the library budget, and we certainly appreciate that.


Some suggested charging for a library card, but state law does not permit charging for the issuance of the basic card to state residents.


Lots more donations of books and DVDs found their way to the library door the last six months, as people chose to share their items with others.


People volunteered to help at the library with specific tasks, trying to replace staff laid off last August.


The library staff has been great about adjusting their work load and doing jobs not formerly part of their tasks.


It is sad to walk through the Cataloging Department of the library system to see two part-time people doing what five full-time people used to do, processing new things for the library collections.


The library staff working in 7 buildings around the county has been reduced by 30 percent through attrition, and finally the lay-off of 13 staff last August.


The dedication of the Board, staff, and volunteers keeps library services operating in these difficult times.