Beginning next month, Portland Public Library will no longer charge fees for books and other materials that are returned late. The move will increase access for the close to 30,000 individuals who have had their accounts locked because of failure to pay overdue fees. Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — The Portland Public Library has not charged late fees throughout the coronavirus pandemic and come Sept. 1 the fees will be eliminated all together.

Sarah Campbell, executive director of Portland Public Library, said she hopes the move will help preserve access to the library for all patrons and help return items that have long been overdue.

For years the library, like others throughout the state, has charged a small fee – 25 cents for adult books/materials and 10 cents for children’s materials – for each day the item was late. When the overdue fee hit $5, the patron lost the privilege to borrow additional items.

Campbell said 24,000 patrons whose accounts have been locked because they owe at least $5 in overdue fees haven’t used the library since 2012.

The Portland Public Library stopped charging overdue fees during the coronavirus pandemic. In September, that change will become permanent, although the library will still invoice patrons for damaged or lost materials. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

While the library has no demographic data about accounts that owe the library money, “there is increasing evidence that late fees disproportionately affects a portion of users that come from minority or low-income households,” Campbell said.

Eliminating the fees will mean a reduction of $66,000 in revenue, but the library hopes to make up for some of that loss through donations to its annual fund, she said.

She’s not concerned that removing the overdue fees will also remove the incentive for patrons to return materials on time. Most people understand the library is a public asset that belongs to the entire community and that’s generally enough of an incentive to have library materials returned on time, she said.

Several urban libraries across the country, include those in San Francisco, California; Nashville, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois, have eliminated late fees. Chicago, Campbell said, saw a dramatic increase in the amount of materials returned in the weeks after the fees were removed.

“We have heard from other libraries that have (eliminated overdue fees) that interaction with patrons and trust in the library has been rebuilt because of this change in policy,” said Portland Public Library Director of Development & External Relations Kristen Smith. “People are coming back with a sense of positivity as opposed to being afraid to come in (because they owe money).”

While many libraries around the Portland area still charge overdue fees – typically 10 or 25 cents a day – there are a few that have already dropped overdue fees, including libraries in Windham and Gorham.

Jennifer Alvino, president of the Maine Library Association. said elimination of fees “is a trend that began a few years ago.” Her library, the Windham Public Library, eliminated overdue fees in September 2019.

The association doesn’t have data on how many libraries in the state have eliminated the fees, Alvino said, but “I know of several libraries that have done so due to the economic barrier they present to accessing library services.

“Fines often disproportionately affect children and low income families. Eliminating fines helps to bring back those folks who have been unable to utilize library services due to outstanding fines and has not resulted in longer wait times for popular items or lengthier return times,” she said.

James Rathbun, director of the Baxter Memorial Library in Gorham, said the library has not imposed daily overdue fees since 2003, but does charge for books that are not returned after several weeks.

Overdue fees of 10 or 25 cents a day may not seem like a big deal, but for some patrons they may be, Rathbun said.

“A lot of people use the library for computer use or to check out a book because they can’t afford it at home. (Fees) do add up over time and can be a real burden,” Rathbun said.

In 2018, the Bangor Public Library stopped charging daily overdue fees, but it does charge patrons if a book or other library material is not returned within a month. A year later, Turner Memorial Library in Presque Isle eliminated overdue fees. Several libraries, including those in Lewiston, Ellsworth and Belfast, don’t charge daily overdue fees for materials in their children’s collections.

In January 2019 the American Library Association passed a resolution urging libraries to “scrutinize their practices of imposing fines on library patrons and actively move towards eliminating them” and governing bodies of libraries to “strengthen funding support for libraries so they are not dependent on monetary fines as a necessary source of revenue.”

The Portland library has been looking into eliminating fees for awhile, but Campbell said overturning the overdue fee policy became more important given the financial strain people are in due to the coronavirus pandemic and the dialogue taking place all across the country about racial and social inequities.

“We felt the time was right,” Campbell said.

Although the library will no longer charge overdue fines, it will charge patrons if they lose or damage a book.

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