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Johnson County Library is ditching late fees and wiping out all overdue book fines. Here's why

 The Monticello branch of the Johnson County Public Library in western Shawnee, Kansas.
Nicholas Telep
KCUR 89.3
The Monticello branch of the Johnson County Public Library in western Shawnee, Kansas.

The Johnson County Library Board voted unanimously to discontinue charging 30 cents for each day an item is overdue. The library will also forgive overdue fines already on the books, saying that embarrassment has been discouraging people from ever returning items or using the library.

Johnson County Library patrons were liberated Thursday from fines that build up for keeping books and other materials past their due dates.

The Johnson County Library Board voted unanimously — and with applause — to discontinue charging 30 cents for each dayan item is overdue.

The library also will forgive overdue fines that were already on the books. By Friday morning, patrons with JoCo Library’s mobile app were able to see $0.00 under the “Fees due” tab.

Board members said the embarrassment of the fines had been discouraging people from ever returning items or coming back to use the library.

The library system draws a distinction between fines, which are charged for overdue materials, and fees, which are charged for lost or damaged items.

Board members also voted to wipe away fees for lost or damaged material that were billed on or before April 13, 2017.

The library will keep charging those fees going forward, but if they stay on the books for seven years, they will be forgiven.

The lost revenue won’t be much

The idea is, “access, access, access,” said board member Mitra Templin.

“If there are people in this community who do not feel they can walk into this library because they have a fine and don’t want to deal with that (social) abrasion, then we as a library are not doing our job,” she said.

The revenue lost from not collecting the fines represents only a very small part of the library budget.

According to a staff report, that amount would be $79,313, or less than one-half of one percent of the library system’s total revenue.

Conversely, collecting the fees costs about $173,000 in administrative time.

Waiving the loss or damage fees, on the other hand, would cost $3.5 million, if they could be collected, but the majority of that amount is old enough that it is considered uncollectible.

Board treasurer Bethany Griffith called it “imaginary” money charged to an account because “you were put on a naughty list for not turning a book in.”

Because the library could not collect it, it does not affect the bottom line, she said.

“We’re not talking about a certain amount of active money the library is out of. This is just imaginary ‘you are naughty’ money,” she said.

A broader trend to ditch library fines

In doing away with fines, Johnson County Library joins several others in the Kansas City metro and across the country.

Other big U.S. library systems that have already ditched fines include those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles County, Boston and Seattle.

Libraries that have already done this reported an increase in library use and more returned materials, according to a staff presentation Thursday.

The county commission has approval power over the library budget, but not over library policies, so does not have to vote on it.

Meanwhile, the Olathe Library system is separate from the county and would need approval from its city government to do the same.

This story was originally published on the Shawnee Mission Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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