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Libraries consider waiving fines

Local libraries in the Lehigh Carbon Library Cooperative are considering making overdue fines a thing of the past.

The cooperative’s board of directors voted Tuesday night to approve a resolution that would permanently waive overdue fines starting Sept. 1 if all 11 libraries in the system give it the green light. It is called the “Fine Free Forever” initiative.

“I don’t want to speak for other library directors, but it does look like this is going to happen,” Melissa Hawk, Lehighton Area Memorial Library director, said. “I think removing barriers to people’s ability to use the library is important. There are a lot of people right now who are really struggling. They can’t afford to go to the movies or buy books. Libraries are one of the last free services out there and we don’t want to restrict people by burdening them with overdue fees to the point where they can’t use the library anymore.”

Waiving overdue fees does not mean that patrons would get off free if they lose a book or DVD. Hawk said there are set times until different items are marked lost, at which point the person would need to pay for the replacement of the item before they could check anything else out.

“Should they happen to find that item, whenever it may be, they can bring it in and that would come off their account,” Hawk said.

The lending periods are one week for DVDs, two weeks for high demand books and DVD sets, and three weeks for audiobooks, books, magazines and music CDs.

Patrons would be responsible for overdue fees on interlibrary loan items charged by the owning library.

Locally, libraries in Lehighton, Palmerton, Slatington and the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe would be impacted by the change.

“I think it’s a pretty fantastic trend that we’re seeing in library services across the country,” Kara Edmonds, Dimmick Memorial Library director, said. “The majority of patrons who have their accounts blocked by overdue fees are people from lower income families or children. We want them to be able to use our services. The real mission of the library is to provide free information without restrictions, not to teach responsibility.”

On average, the Lehighton Area Memorial Library takes in around $1,500 a year in overdue fees. Edmonds said fines make up 1.5-2% of budgets across the Lehigh Carbon Library Cooperative. Often times, she said, that amount can be made up through other goodwill donations.

“Finances are tight and we do operate on a modest budget, but we do already have some fundraisers and drives in place to try to replace that,” Hawk said.

Edmonds said overdue fees, historically, do not entice people to bring their items back. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many local libraries waived overdue fees.

“People have been pleased with that and we’re actually finding they are returning items with more regularity,” she said. “I’m hoping we can change the perception of the public library from that of being a taskmaster to being a welcoming place where we support learning.”

One way Dimmick and other libraries are making things easier is by using a system that automatically renews items for patrons unless someone else has put in a request for it.

“It’s all about setting up opportunities for success,” she said.

Items are returned late for all kinds of reasons, Hawk said, and libraries have traditionally tried to work with people to keep their accounts open.

“It could be a house fire, it could be an extended illness and sometimes people don’t want to tell us what’s going on,” Hawk said. “Maybe they’re just having a hard time. I’ve seen people who may have had a lot of late fees, go on to become very responsible library users. I really think if this goes through, it’s going to be a great thing.”