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Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, thinking about the magic of libraries. My childhood library was set in a redwood grove—a serene, chapel-like structure with windows that looked out at the old trees around it. I read voraciously as a child, so the weekly trips to check out books were a welcome routine.

A less welcome routine: The overdue fines that inevitably accumulated when a book got misplaced or forgotten at home. But while for some those overdue fines are an inconvenience (and, let’s be real, an embarrassment—no one wants to disappoint a librarian), for others they actively discourage or prevent the use of the library. As this consequence comes into view, many library systems are making a bold policy change.

That policy change came to Monterey County this week when the Board of Supervisors voted Nov. 16 to eliminate and forgive overdue fines within the Monterey County Free Libraries system.

“Overdue fines—anyone can rack them up, but they really hurt people who need the library the most,” Library Director Hillary Theyer says. The assumption behind fines, Theyer says, is that they encourage people to return items on time. But that assumption comes with a social cost. As stated in Theyer’s report to the board: “A family that fears risk of accruing fines they cannot readily pay can too easily end up not allowing their young children to bring books home during a critical reading period.” Add to this the fact that it costs library systems money to collect those overdue fines, and suddenly fines start to look like an indelicate tool for the job they are meant to do.

Monterey County Free Libraries system is not alone in making this change. It has been a growing trend in public library systems around the country. Some, Theyer says, initially did it as a test—would eliminating fines mean more overdue books? What they found was that behavior didn’t change—a punitive measure doesn’t actually encourage people to return more books in a more timely manner, it just punishes those who do not. In 2019, the American Library Association passed a resolution calling monetary fines a form of social inequity.

The elimination of overdue fines will officially go into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. In all, over $155,000 in outstanding fines will be forgiven. Library books will still have due dates (the library system uses email reminders to help people remember to bring their books back). And if a book truly isn’t returned it will be classified as “lost,” meaning the patron is responsible for the cost to replace the item. Theyer encourages anyone with overdue books to return them, and talk to a librarian if they have any questions about their account.

“I am so happy, and I think the Board of Supervisors really needs to be congratulated for this kind of forward-thinking,” Theyer says. “For really thinking ahead to how we can structure policies to help the public.”

See you at the library.

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