CHECK IT OUT — A library patron smiles as they learn about the new fine-free policy while checking out items.

Library changes aim to remove access barriers, encourage patronage

The Sonoma County Library is trying to break down one of the barriers that may be preventing possible patrons from checking materials out — beginning July 1, the library is going fine-free.

On July 1, the library will be erasing a total of $903,289 in late fines from 80,824 patrons. According to Sarah Vantrease, public services division manager for the Sonoma County Library, this equates to approximately 30% of all library borrowers receiving fine forgiveness.

While the near-million dollar fine total may seem like a large chunk to excuse from borrowers, Vantrease said that the library sees a ballpark amount of around one-third of fines get paid — the other two-thirds sit unpaid.

The money that the library traditionally receives from fines accounts for less than 1% of the library’s total budget, said Ray Holley, community relations manager for the Sonoma County Library.

“It costs us more money to collect fines than we actually make in fines,” he said. “It makes sense financially for us to do this, but it also makes sense because what we’re about is getting people into the library and using these wonderful free assets that we have.”

The number of libraries going fine-free has increased in recent years, especially locally. Other libraries in the area going fine free on July 1 include the Marin County Free Library and the Oakland Public Library.

According to Vantrease, libraries that have adopted a fine free system have seen an increase in community engagement and overall library use, whereas fines can be a main detractor.

“When you tell the family they owe, it doesn’t really matter the amount,” she said. “It’s so heartbreaking because oftentimes we see the patrons be embarrassed.”

Vantrease hopes that eliminating fines will help encourage people who may have stopped going to the library because of fines to come back.

“Some people think that you need to have fines so you can teach responsibility,” she said. “I just have to say, if that were true, we wouldn’t have 80,000 people who owe money to the library.”

While late fines for the Sonoma County Library are going away, library fees aren’t. Library fines refer to late or overdue books, whereas fees refer to books that are lost. As it stands, people with library fees and fines over $10 are blocked from using the system. This amounts to 42,074 library card holders who aren’t able to use library services. Along with taking away fines, the library is also going to up the maximum cap on blocked library accounts to $100 in fees. This, Holley said, will lower the number of people blocked from using the library to around 5,000 people.

“It reflects reality,” he said. “If a mom comes into the library and she checks out a couple of books for herself and she gets five or six books for each of the kids — maybe they can’t come to the library very often so she gets 15 books for each of the kids — and then the kid gives one of the books to a friend, the dog drags another book under the couch, everybody’s trying to do the right thing but somehow they don’t get back to the library. Then suddenly they can’t use the library anymore — that’s crazy. We want people to come in, we want everybody at the library.”

All of the media available to be checked out from the library is also going to have a standardized 21-day borrowing period across the board. If something isn’t returned after 42 days, the library will treat the item as if it’s lost and the patron will be charged with a fee.

Sonoma County Library is also changing what it takes to get a library card. Instead of having to provide a photo ID and proof of address, would-be patrons will only have to provide a valid photo ID.

“It doesn’t have to be a drivers license or passport — it could be a membership card, it could be a school ID with a photo; if you’re not a citizen, it can be a green card or a work permit card, something with a photo on it,” Holley said.

For both Holley and Vantrease, one of the main reasons behind these shifts in the system comes down to taking down barriers that may be preventing people from using the library. Now, those with a photo ID who may not have proof of permanent address — those who are shelterless, displaced by fires or even here for a few months during harvest will be able to use library services.

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