2013-04-12 / Front Page

Library fines are thing of the past

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — The Thomas Memorial Library will no longer charge patrons fines for most overdue materials.

The Cape Elizabeth Town Council voted unanimously on Monday, April 8 to accept a recommendation from the library’s board of trustees to eliminate the fines. Patrons will still have to pay for lost or damaged items, as well as overdue fines on interlibrary loan materials, but all other fines will be eliminated.

Previously, library users had to pay a fine of 10 cents per day for overdue books, up to a maximum of $6. For children, overdue fines were 5 cents a day, maxing out at $3. The fine for overdue videos was $1 per day with a maximum fine of $10.

Library Director Jay Scherma hopes eliminating the fines will create a more “pleasant experience” at the library by doing away with a practice that eats up staff time and impacts residents in a negative way.

“There’s not a question of invoking guilt,” Scherma said. “People’s schedules shift and you lose track of time. It’s a very busy world. In most cases, it’s not like there’s somebody waiting for something.”

Scherma estimated the library collected $6,500 in revenue from overdue fines in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, but he said the staff time to administer those fines created a net loss for the town. A large number of transactions involve a small fine, which “adds up to a fair amount of time wasted,” he said. If five minutes of each hour are devoted to fine collection, the town would save $762 in the next fiscal year without fines.

“In libraries from the get-go, fines were never intended as a revenue source. They were never intended as anything other than an incentive,” Scherma said.

However, Scherma said fines have remained so low that they don’t provide an incentive to return the book either. If someone needs a book to finish a paper, he explained, a 10- cent per day fine isn’t going to change that patron’s incentive to return the book on time.

Before the decision was made, Scherma contacted many library directors in Maine to find out how eliminating fines has impacted their experiences. Many said the change was positive.

“Quite frankly, one of the best things we ever did in terms of customer service was to eliminate fines when we joined Minerva about 10 years ago,” Pam Turner of Baxter Memorial Library in Gorham wrote in an email.

However, South Portland Public Library Director Kevin Davis expressed concerns that the new policy will make a potential “open access” agreement between the two libraries difficult.

Library staff from the neighboring communities had been involved in informal talks about a potential arrangement in which residents of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland could use each library interchangeably. Davis said the South Portland Public Library collects more than $20,000 in revenue from fines, so the city council would not support elimination.

Therefore, if an open access agreement were to happen, South Portland residents may be more likely to return their overdue items to Thomas Memorial Library in order to avoid a fine, driving traffic down in South Portland.

Scherma said there are ways around those issues. The system at Thomas Memorial Library may still be able to attach fines to overdue items for those with a South Portland library card. Despite the complications, Scherma said the board of trustees had to make decisions “based on the best interests of Cape’s patrons using Cape’s library.”

Town Manager Michael McGovern supported a broader overview of library staffing as its function moves increasingly toward “helping citizens access technology” and away from circulation duties. However, McGovern said the “pilot experiment” of eliminating fines won’t make or break the town’s municipal budget.

“I hope it works. If it doesn’t work, if people hoard books, we get complaints that people can’t get books because people are sitting on them, keeping them too long, it gives us the ability to go back to the status quo,” McGovern said.

McGovern said he will meet with Scherma in the near future to discuss when the new policy will go into place, but he said it will take effect sometime before July 1.

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