LEWISTON — Library officials are asking the City Council to consider eliminating fines for overdue library items starting July 1.

According to a memo to the council from Marcela Peres, the Lewiston Public Library director, both library staff and the board of trustees are requesting the policy change due to its limited impact on library returns and its “detrimental effect on equity and access to information.”

Peres said libraries across the country have been reconsidering fines due to their disproportionate impact on low-income families, and there is mounting evidence that shows scrapping fines promotes more library use.

“As more libraries have gone fine-free, the data shows that overdue fines have little to no impact on items being returned on time,” she said. “In fact, there is increasingly data to suggest the opposite: eliminating overdue fines may increase the rate of returned items, as well as library card adoption and library usage.”

Peres said Chicago recently reported a 240% increase in returned materials since going fine-free.

But, she said, eliminating overdue fines would not change the borrower’s responsibility to return library materials. Borrowers receive multiple overdue notices, and if an item is six weeks overdue, they are sent a bill for the replacement cost.

In Lewiston, the library begins charging 10 cents per day for books and $1 per day for audio/visual items after an amnesty period of seven days past the due date. Accruing charges of $5 or more on a library account results in a block from checking out materials or using computers, including for schoolwork or job searching.

There are 625 accounts blocked, and nearly one-third are children or teenagers.

“Those least able to pay off overdue fines, including impoverished community members and youth, are therefore disproportionately impacted: these users often rely on these services more than library patrons who have the means to pay fines,” Peres said. “Further, research has shown that just the threat of accumulating overdue fines is a factor in keeping low-income families away from using libraries.”

In 2019, the American Library Association passed a resolution urging libraries to scrutinize the practice of imposing fines, stating it “creates a barrier to the provision of library and information services.”

The City Council was slated to hold a workshop discussion on the topic Tuesday, but the meeting was postponed due to the  storm.

Peres said over the past five fiscal years, the amount budgeted for library overdue fines has never been met. In each of the past five years, the amount collected has dropped from a high of about $4,800 in fiscal year 2015-16 to roughly $1,600 in fiscal year 2019-20.

Peres argues that the benefits to the community will far outweigh the limited revenue.

“As the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic continues, residents should feel comfortable and able to turn to the library for free resources to help build new career skills, supplement virtual learning, and find comfort and personal enrichment in the pages of a book,” she said.

A letter to the council from the library’s board trustees makes a similar argument, stating “the relatively small revenue generated is not worth the effect it has on our city’s residents.”

The trustees’ letter also says that data from libraries across the country, including at the Portland Public Library, show that the elimination of fines does not lead to an increase in late books.

“These same libraries show an uptick in new and returning patrons once fines have been eliminated,” it states.

The City Council will likely take up the workshop discussion Tuesday, Feb. 9.


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