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Oliver Merkey, 8, front, and his brother Henry, 6, looks for books in the children's section at the La Crosse Public Library at Eighth and Main streets. The library’s operations committee considered Tuesday eliminating fines for overdue materials, instead limiting check-outs for people who have late items.

The patrons of the La Crosse Public Library may soon be rid of fines for overdue books.

Library director Kelly Krieg-Sigman called the move a “natural evolution” as library’s change with the times, particularly as the popularity of electronic library materials continues to grow. The library’s operations committee discussed the idea Tuesday, although it couldn’t take any action due to lack of a quorum.

“I do firmly believe the whole purpose of fines — the whole reason public libraries started them — just doesn’t exist anymore,” Krieg-Sigman said in an interview prior to the meeting.

The library charges 15 cents per day per item for adult and teen audiobooks, CDs and books, and 5 cents per day per item for children’s materials, except for special “Lucky Day” items, which have a 50 cent per day late fee.

Downloadable items — available on apps such as Overdrive, Hoopla and Kanopy — are increasingly popular and never overdue. It stays on a device until the end of the loan period and then simply disappears, Krieg-Sigman said.

Under the proposal — which is subject to Library Board approval next week — the city would switch over July 1, wiping the slate clean and starting the new policy, which would apply to all materials checked out at the three La Crosse Public Library locations, except the “Lucky Day” items.

People would have the typical three weeks to return items, plus have the ability to renew them twice if there isn’t someone waiting. After that, they will start to get notices to return the book and a hold will be placed on their library cards until they either pay for a replacement or bring it back.

“We’re not going to charge you fines, but we’re not going to let you check new items out,” she said.

Research comparing libraries that charge fines with those that don’t is inconclusive on whether fines actually prompt patrons to return items, but it does indicate that fines are a barrier to low-income families.

“Any time there are barriers that prevent the most vulnerable of the population from feeling comfortable and welcome at the library, that’s not a good outcome,” Krieg-Sigman said.

Colorado State Library recommended all libraries eliminate fines last year, laying out several studies that show punitive policies do more harm than good, driving vulnerable people away from the library for fear of being stuck owing it money.

“When you have to worry about whether or not you have a roof over your head, the last thing on the list of your priorities is having to worry about when to get your books back to the library,” Krieg-Sigman said.

While fines max out at $5 per item, children especially check out more than one at a time.

“If you’ve got young children, and you check out 10 things, 10 children’s books, that wracks up pretty fast,” Krieg-Sigman said.

It runs counter to the library’s goals of encouraging early literacy and bringing more patrons in to take advantage of its services and materials.

The primary argument in favor of fines is that they teach patrons responsibility and the importance of honoring agreements. When checking out books, kids agree to return them in a timely manner. However, Krieg-Sigman said, that shouldn’t be the primary focus of the library.

“The public library’s mission is to help the community evolve, adapt and thrive. We are not in the business of teaching responsibility. That is for parents. That is for the faith communities. That’s not really our job,” Krieg-Sigman said.

Plus, parents are the ones who end up paying the fines, not the children.

Library Board member Katie Bittner praised the idea as awesome and exciting.

“At the end of the day, it’s just increasing access and bringing more people in,” Bittner said.

The proposal will have a minimal impact on the library’s budget. Krieg-Sigman estimated fines make up about 1 percent of the library’s total budget. Library staff also needs to set aside time and fine collection materials, which adds up over time.

“Sure, we’re getting money for the fines, but we’re also spending so much staff time,” said Bittner. “I can see it from multiple perspectives. You’re still losing that money by putting staff time into having to collect.”


City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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