Washington County considers plan to eliminate library fines
In an effort to make county libraries more equitable and accessible to all Washington County residents using them, an advisory board is recommending that overdue library fines be eliminated.
Those recommendations have been forwarded to local city councils for input, with plans to ask the Washington County Board of Commissioners to approval the proposal at its Nov. 3 meeting.
At issue is a recommendation by the Washington County Cooperative Library Services executive board that fines be eliminated at all member libraries, an action that would result in retroactively waiving $1.48 million in fines for the 111,487 county residents who owe them.
As a result, the 12,200 residents who can't currently access library services because of unpaid fines would be allowed to check out materials again, according to a report presented to the executive board.
"Public libraries historically assessed overdue fines in order to incentivize the timely return of library materials," the report states. "However, there is no current data that shows overdue fines achieve this goal; in fact, overdue fines are counterproductive and keep users away from the library."
On Sept. 30, the WCCLS executive board voted unanimously to bring the recommendation to the commissioners. Lisa Tattersall, manager of Washington County Cooperative Library Services declined comment on the issue other than to confirm it will soon be presented to the commissioners.
"Until they have given us their guidance on this proposal, it's premature for us to comment further," she said.
Earlier this summer, Jerianne Thompson, Tualatin Public Library director, told the Tualatin City Council that when San Francisco did an analysis of late fees, officials found that communities with high economic stress were also the ones most affected by library fines.
"Chicago found similar results for their city," Thompson said. "In San Diego, nearly half of the patrons whose accounts were blocked by late fees lived in two of the city's poorest neighborhoods."
Thompson pointed out that Washington County Cooperative Library Services stopped assessing fines in March, once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She said that library fine revenues have been decreasing in recent years anyway, and that WCCLS discontinued fines on children's items in June 2017.
"Last fiscal year, Tualatin collected $17,577 in overdue fines and that's about two-thirds of what we assessed," Thompson told the council at the time. "This amount represents less than 1 percent of the library's budget. So, we believe we can absorb this loss of revenue."
If approved, nearly 10,000 patrons of the Tualatin Library would have about $120,000 in fines waived, Thompson said.
Under the proposal, officials have said that once library materials haven't been returned following a certain time period, patrons would be charged the cost of the item they checked out.
A presentation of the issue in Tualatin's neighbor to the north further emphasized research that shows the benefit of doing away with fines.
During a Oct. 20 work session, Tigard Public Library director Halsted Bernard told the Tigard City Council that getting rid of overdue fines is a way to eliminate one significant barrier to library access, noting that research shows that communities of color are more likely to be impacted by unpaid library fees.
"This is a growing concern for many municipal leaders who want better ways to engage and support community residents," Bernard said.
Quoting from a report written by Katherine Carter, a senior program specialist, and Denise Belser, a program director, both with the National League of Cities, Bernard said: "Overdue library fees very often represent a very small fraction of a library's operating budget, yet disproportionally affect communities that have income insecurity or individuals with low incomes."
That same report said that late fees add up and become insurmountable so some families end up deciding whether to pay a fee or buy food.
"For many, this is a reminder of past injustices within public institutions," said Bernard.
It's not true that fines teach civic responsibility, Bernard said — rather, eliminating fines has shown a more timely return of library materials.
"The Chicago Public Library saw a 240 percent increase in returns after eliminating fines and the Salt Lake Public Library saw a drop in materials that were returned late after eliminating fines — from 9 percent to 4 percent," Bernard said.
Bernard added that many other libraries throughout the nation have gone to a fine-free model, noting that regionally, both the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District and Multnomah County Library System have already gone fine-free.
If approved, Bernard said almost 3% of Tigard patrons will again gain access to the library. She noted that paying overdue library fines is "one of the most negative aspects of a patron's relationship with the library."
If county commissioners approve the measure, it would go into effect in early 2021, officials say.
(This article was revised to show the source of information regarding how library fines impact those in lower-income brackets.)
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