Tulare County Library eliminates late fees in the hopes of removing barriers for low income residents and increasing library use, and even revenues
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
TULARE COUNTY – As a child, Darla Wegener had trouble remembering to return her library books. She recalls seeing the late fees pile up but then became too embarrassed to step foot at the library to return the books. At one point she felt so guilty she donated all of the paperback romance novels she had read just to try and balance the scales with lady literacy.
“I decided that I needed to work at the library because I was one of the guilty parties,” she said.
Now several decades later, Wegener is the county librarian. She oversees 17 branches and hears the same problems with today’s children not remembering to return their books and slowly collecting fines of 25 cents per day. As more and more staff time is spent trying to collect late fees, Waggoner decided the libraries could see an increase in revenue and use in the community by eliminating the biggest barrier to people using it – late fees from books they forgot to return on time.
“Getting rid of these fees is one of the things on my bucket list,” Wegener told the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on April 30, just before the board closed the book on late fees forever.
Wegener said extended use fees, more commonly referred to as late fees, are not the reason people return books but are often the reason why they don’t return to the library at all. According to the US Census the median income for Tulare County is $44,871 with 27.1% of the population in poverty and 9.4% are unemployed, both among the highest in the state. Nearly one-third of adults lack basic literacy skills and one-third of children do not meet state standards in English Language Arts. These statistics don’t complete the picture, as many working families also are challenged to pay for their day to day expenses.
“These fees are often the reason patrons leave the library confused, upset, or embarrassed,” Wegener said. “That negative image not only leads to the loss of that patron but the loss of their entire family. This is in direct conflict with the image our library strives to present as a positive, customer-centered, free library.”
In addition to issues of literacy, Wegener said these fines may also prevent patrons from using the library’s free computers. She said many low-income families use the internet access at the library to pay bills, apply for jobs, pay their taxes, complete homework assignments, as well as research and write documents for school.
“Our internet and computer service is often the only access they have,” she said.
The fees also cost almost as much as they attempt to save. Wegener said her staff spent about 8% of their time ($46,000) collecting late fees ($54,000) in 2018, which is why libraries up and down the state have decided to eliminate late fees. Wegener said her 42 full-time staff members could more efficiently provide essential library services if they weren’t chasing down late fees. In the last few years, revenues from all fees have gone down about 20%, despite the use of a reputable collection agency. She said by freeing up their time, library staff could focus on grants, donations, and outreach to offset the loss of revenue from fees and even generate revenue over that mark. By eliminating extended use fees, Wegener said patron registration and attendance at programs would increase.
“The amount of fees are going down because less people are using the library,” Wegener said.
There are still rules in place to encourage patrons to return their books and DVDs. Wegener said patrons will still receive reminders when books are due and will not be able to check out new books until the others are returned. If the books are not returned for an extended time, the patron is then sent to collections. Wegener also said that all current charges still apply for damaged or lost books, as there is a cost to replace them.
“I appreciate your effort to increase and enhance library services and programs,” said Supervisor Pete Vander Poel.
Wegener said the library will continue its Food for Fines program for a few more years to help library users erase late fees prior to the board’s action.
“In three to four years, all of the [outstanding] fines should be gone,” she said.