By ERIN ROLL
It has been six months since the Montclair Public Library stopped charging fines for overdue books and materials.
And so far, library officials say, the fine-free system has helped increase the number of library users.
The facility has seen a 10 percent increase in usage overall since the library went fine-free, and the number of lost items brought back to the library has doubled, said Library Director Peter Coyl.
In May of last year, Montclair library officials eliminated its overdue fines, except for books that are lost or overdue beyond 90 days. Library officials made the move, joining others nationwide who found that having a system of fines in place was deterring people from using the library.
Fines were 15 cents per day per book, and DVDs were $1 a day for a DVD.
As of May last year, out of 32,945 active Montclair Library cardholders about 36 percent, or 11,810, had accrued overdue fines. Of those, almost 20 percent had fines over $25. In 2018, Montclair Library took in $35,000 fines.
“A number of customers have told us, [the fines] are keeping me from using the library,” Coyl said. Many users were concerned with using the library after they had overdue items and would be required to pay fines they could not afford, he said.
What demographic group has increased its library usage is not available since the library doesn’t track usage, Coyl said.
The library does still charge a fee for items that have been overdue for 90 days or more, $30 for books and $20 for audiovisual materials. And library users still owe late fees on items that are borrowed through BCCLS.
Lost items have started to come back. Before the fine elimination, Coyl said, the library had seen an average of 430 lost items returned over a six-month period. Since the fine-free system was instituted, that amount has doubled with 800 lost items returned since May 20.
Coyl said the library will likely have a more complete picture on the impact of the amnesty program once a full year has passed.
More libraries across the United States are starting to eliminate fines in an effort to encourage more patrons to use the library.
Library officials found that charging fines tended to deter patrons from using the library, including demographic groups that libraries especially hope to bring in: children, senior citizens and low-income residents.
“We’re very happy, all our customers are very happy,” said Coyl. “And that was the intent of what we wanted to happen.”
Some of Montclair’s neighboring libraries have begun to follow Montclair’s lead. The Bloomfield Public Library officially went fine-free on Jan. 1 modeling its own policies on fines and fees after Montclair’s. Library Director Holly Belli said that all of the libraries in Essex County were aware that Montclair was taking the step of going fine-free in the spring.
“We realized that it might be a good idea for more libraries to get on board,” Belli said.
Belli said she has heard parents say to their children, “You can’t take anything out because I don’t want to worry about the fines.” That is a “worrying message” to send to children, to make them see a library as a place where they might get punished for something, she said.
Last year, Bloomfield took in $12,000 through fines. When the library weighed the small amount of revenue against the amount of work that it takes for staff to enforce late fines or block a patron’s account, Belli said the library realized that it just wasn’t worth it.
Also like Montclair, Bloomfield will charge a fee for any item that is 90 days overdue, and Belli said that policy was specifically modeled after Montclair. “Peter led the way on that one,” she said.