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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
FairfaxLibrary fines soon to be thing of past in Fairfax County

Library fines soon to be thing of past in Fairfax County

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The Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees is preparing to dispense with overdue-materials fines to make the county’s library system more equitable and not discourage people from using the facilities.

A four-month effort by an ad-hoc committee formed this year by the Library Board of Trustees found that fines discouraged the public from using libraries in the long term and did not achieve their intended goal of getting people to return overdue items, said Jessica Hudson, director of Fairfax County Public Library, during an Oct. 12 presentation to the Board of Supervisors.

“It acts as a punitive measure that ensures that some members of our population are never going to come back to the library,” she said. “They’re never going to use the resources that they’re paying for with their tax dollars and they’re not going to be able to enjoy the educational and entertainment opportunities that lie within it.”

Using pre-pandemic data, the committee found that library fines disproportionately affected young people and those from disadvantaged communities, Hudson said.

Users of the Reston, Fairfax, George Mason and Sherwood Regional libraries and Kingstowne Library had higher rates of “blocked” cards, i.e., library accounts with $15 or more in overdue fines, she said.

Fines create ill will, with those stung telling others about their bad experience, Hudson said. All library systems surrounding Fairfax County do not charge for late materials, she said.

“We are the last remaining holdout,” Hudson said.

Fairfax County Public Library already has fine-mitigation programs in place, including:

• “Food for Fines” lets people bring in food donations during the holiday season and reduce their fines by $1 per canned-food item.

• “Read Away Your Fines,” held during National Library Week in April, allows people to read for 15 minutes at a library and take $1 off their fines.

• The Library Equity Access Pass (LEAP), done in partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools, which lets students check out materials using their names only and does not charge fines or fees.

Fine collections have been on a continual decline, thanks to user awareness, auto-renewal availability and the popularity of fine-free electronic materials, Hudson said. County libraries between 2010 and 2015 annually collected about $1 million in fines (which go to the county’s general fund, not back to the library system), but that tally had dropped to about $600,000 before the pandemic struck and during fiscal year 2021 went down to about $270,000, she said.

“So is the effort of collecting those dollars really worth all of the negative impact that’s associated with it?” Hudson asked.

The Library Board likely will vote in December to eliminate overdue-materials fines and the change will take effect Jan. 1, 2022, she said.

“We should be clear, though, that if you lose an item or damage an item, you do still have to pay for that, because there’s absolutely still a need for the items to be returned, for everyone to use the shared collective resource and to take personal responsibility for that collective item,” she said.

There is an association between patrons’ burden about having fines and their willingness to come to the library, said Sujatha Hampton, who represents Dranesville District on the Library Board.

“We could imagine that just putting this into place and strongly advertising it will bring back a flood of books that might out right now,” Hampton said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay (D) said eliminating fines was the “right thing to do.”

“I think anyone who has a fine is going to be a lot more hesitant to walk through the doors of a library than somebody who doesn’t, and that’s what we don’t want to do,” he said.

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