Lilly Hodgkins, left, and her brother, Josiah Hodgkins, get items checked out Tuesday by Ann Russell, technology librarian at Gardiner Public Library. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

GARDINER — A funny thing happened when the Gardiner Public Library suspended fines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Library card holders brought back their borrowed books in a more timely fashion. And in lieu of fines they might have otherwise paid, they dropped their coins in a donation jar, bringing in more money than the late fees would have.

Earlier this month, the Gardiner City Council agreed to suspend library late fees indefinitely at the request of Anne Davis, director of the Gardiner Public Library.

A donation box is placed on the counter of the main circulation desk at Gardiner Public Library. The library accepts donations but currently doesn’t charge late fines. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In suspending its fines, the Gardiner Public library is joining a growing number of libraries across Maine and across the country that are halting the practice that can for many people represent a barrier to access of library materials and services.

“It’s now a pretty much researched issue,” Davis said.

There is now a a thought process that fines are discriminating against the people that librarians most want to use their facilities — people who can’t afford to buy books or may have literacy issues, and owing fines can disenfranchise them.

“I am not saying people aren’t going to have to take responsibility for their items (not returned),” Davis told the City Council. “Eventually we will have to invoice them for the cost of the item. We just take away the silliness of the fines.”

It’s an issue that the American Library Association has taken up, via a resolution passed at the end of 2019. In it, the council of the organization that promotes library service and librarianship, urges libraries to eliminate monetary fees, which can be a barrier to accessing the library and its services.

Melanie Huggins, president of the Public Libraries Association, said the pandemic accelerated the trend of suspending fees at public libraries, and the resolution has helped librarians across the country make the case for suspending late fees.

It is, Huggins said, an equity issue.

“Libraries ultimately don’t want to create barriers to information or access to resources,” she said. “The reason we exist is exactly the opposite of that. It’s to make sure that everybody who needs information, who wants to make their lives better, has access to the resources and tools that help with that. Us eliminating fines makes a lot of sense. If we want kids to read, if we want them to have books in their hands, why are we the ones creating barriers to that?”

Libraries across central Maine employ a variety of policies. In many cases, they will waive fines in exchange for food pantry donations, as the Lithgow Library in Augusta and others have done. Or they will have a Fine Forgiveness Day, as the Waterville Public Library has done.

The Skowhegan Public Library went fine-free in 2010. Library Director Angie Herrick, who started at the library at about that same time, said fines were a barrier to getting books back.

“We would rather lend it out for six months than just not get the book back at all,” Herrick said.

But if books are not returned after six months, she said, library card holders aren’t able to borrow more books, but they still have access to other library services, and they are free to read books while in the library.

“It’s simply about getting the books back into the library to continue circulating them,” she said.

The Oakland Public Library continues to impose fines on late books, at a cost of 5 cents a day.

“We do accept late fees,” said Sarah Roy, Oakland Library’s head librarian, “only because some of the books don’t come back. We keep the fees on record, but the people don’t come back, either.”

For the most part, Roy said, people don’t mind paying the fee. Patrons are generally granted a day of grace before the fine is imposed, and she will waive fines if they are less than $1, and particularly if the borrower is a child. If the fines reach $1, she said, cardholders are not allowed to take out any more books until the fine is paid and the books are returned.

In the event a book is not returned, it’s marked as lost and the penalty is the price of the book and the late fee.

“Usually, if they bring the book back, I’m so happy I forgive them the fine,” Roy said.

In the larger discussion of fines, some consider that ending fees translates to lost revenue.

In Gardiner, Davis said fines add up to about $6,000 annually, but she anticipates donations will surpass that.

“The intent of fines and fees was not necessarily in most of  our libraries to generate revenue,” said Huggins, who is the executive director of the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. “It was to ensure our materials came back. It was to incentivize, with negative consequences, certain behaviors.”

Davis said Gardiner has ordinances and laws to protect the library and its possessions. In extreme cases, as when people borrow a large amount of materials and fail to return any of it, Davis said she can call the police to retrieve the items.

“It doesn’t end well,” she said. “The stuff comes back damaged because of the frustration, or CDs or DVDs come back all broken. It’s my last ditch effort. I’ve done it maybe twice in my 30 years. It was because someone had maybe 25 items and a lot of them were out of print.”

In making her pitch to the Gardiner City Council, Davis said the fine policy would not apply to other items that the library lends out, including passes to Maine state parks and computers. After a certain amount of time, the library would send out a bill for the delinquent item that would hinder access until the bill is paid.

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