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North Adams Public Library Eliminates Overdue Fines

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It is time for a fresh start. At least so say the trustees of the library.
The Board of Trustees, with the mayor's approval, voted to wipe the slate clean, and effective immediately, all overdue fines on almost all library items have been eliminated.
"Charging overdue fines is a not-so-effective punitive practice that is distributed unevenly. At first glance, the thought is, 'well, just bring the items back, and you won't have fines' but what about when your car breaks down, or you are unexpectedly taking care of the grandkids for a week, or you get the flu, or you just really need two more days to finish that really good mystery novel?" Library Director Sarah Sanfilippo said. "Why force people to worry about getting back to the library on time when they have more important, immediate worries. We're hoping the goodwill this generates will be more effective in getting items back."
The concept isn't totally new to the library and, as of 2018, children and young adults have not been charged fines. For the past year and a half, all adult fines have been forgiven under a pandemic-related amnesty policy.
The trustees decided to make this permanent and in line with many other libraries. Currently, 90 libraries in the CW MARS consortium do not charge overdue fines.
Sanfilippo said the majority of items taken from the library are returned. But like all libraries, there are materials that just never make their way back. 
In most cases, she did not think that materials were not returned for malicious reasons.  
"Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes you leave it in the back seat of your grandmother's car. Sometimes the dog buries it," she said. "We just had an item returned yesterday that had been out since the beginning of the pandemic. The person had left town and was just back now, so stopped in and was happy that we waived the bill. We're happy to have the item back, and others can use it now."
This policy applies to North Adams Public Library materials and does not include museum passes. While many other libraries in the commonwealth are also fine free, there may still be items from around the state that do accrue fines.
Sanfilippo added that with the auto-renewal system implemented in 2019, it became clear that people just needed more time with their materials. She said most items get one renewal.
Since 2019, the number of fines charged has dropped by half. 
Sanfilippo said if anything, she thought the change would encourage patrons to return materials.
"We hope it will remove the stigma, or even just discomfort, for people who may be embarrassed or not want to talk to us about what they owe," she said. 
Williamstown's Milne Public Library is also instituting a fine-free policy. The library's eblast on Friday said it was a "thank you" for the support the library's been given over the past year and half. 
"Studies have shown that library fines very often act as a barrier to entry for libraries, and can do far more harm than good," library officials wrote. "We're excited to be joining a growing number of libraries that are dedicated to removing these barriers and broadening the communities they serve."
As in North Adams, the policy only covers materials taken from the local library and does not include museum passes, as these are in high demand, and prompt return is essential. 
In North Adams, items checked out before the change was made on July 15 will still accrue fines, but will be forgiven upon return. In addition, the staff is working through the list of old overdue charges and will be manually clearing them over the coming month. Old lost charges will remain.
Although overdue fines have been eliminated, patrons will still be billed for lost or damaged materials. But the library has also eliminated the $10 processing fee previously added to these bills. Items are considered lost if they have been overdue for four weeks or more.
Ultimately, Sanfilippo was hopeful the policy change would encourage more people to use the library.
"It would be great if this would welcome some people back who have not felt welcome, or encourage new users," she said. "We welcome anyone who hasn't been here in a while – for any reason – to stop by, update their account if needed, and check out the 'New Book' shelves."
Update: paragraph on Williamstown's similar policy added on Friday, July 23.

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