Eliminating fines saves money for Heights Libraries

Circulation Manager Ty Emerson checks a customer's account.

In January 2018, Heights Libraries stopped charging overdue fees. The move was part of an overall shift in focus from restrictions and chastisement to forgiveness and easier access to materials and services.

“All we really want is for folks to return physical items so they can be recirculated,” said Circulation Manager Ty Emerson. “The elimination of fines makes that the focus of our interaction with customers with overdue items, as opposed to scolding and growing fines and fees, so they are more comfortable bringing the items back.”

Half a year later, the new fine-free policy has benefitted not just the pocketbooks and wallets of customers, but also the library’s bottom line.

“We receive reports from our collection agency detailing how much money and materials we receive back per month through their efforts,” said Emerson. “Because we were no longer requiring overdue fees be paid, we were expecting to see a loss of cash revenue, but the actual cash driven in from our collection agency increased from January to May by $3,785 over last year. And the value of material returned to us more than doubled, from $39,716 to $88,891. That’s $49,175 worth of materials we did not have to pay to replace.”

If an item is so late that it is considered lost, the account is turned over to a collection agency to help retrieve the material. Emerson believes that customers whose accounts have been turned over to the collection agency have now learned that, instead of having hundreds of dollars of fines to pay, they can just return the items and pay a $10 fee to cover the agency’s costs.

Customers still see fines accumulating on overdue items, but when those items are returned, the fines are wiped from the accounts.

The fine-free policy does have some restrictions, and it only applies to items owned by Heights Libraries. Through its membership in the CLEVNET consortium, Heights Libraries customers have access to items at other participating Northeast Ohio libraries via a hold system. If a customer borrows an item from a library that charges fines, the customer must pay those fines—Heights Libraries cannot waive them. This applies to any item obtained through the interlibrary loan service, as well.

“Response has been great,” said Emerson. “We’ve begun to see it reflected in our circulation numbers.”

Over the last few years, Heights Libraries’ circulation numbers have been dropping roughly 5 percent each year, but that trend has reversed since the fine-free policy was implemented. A comparison of March 2018 and March 2016 numbers shows nearly identical numbers, with 2018 a mere 0.87 percent lower than 2016.

“People feel welcome, and forgiven,” noted Emerson, “so they’re coming back and checking out lots of materials. And bringing them back.”

Sheryl Banks

Sheryl Banks is the communications manager for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System.

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Volume 11, Issue 9, Posted 9:47 AM, 08.14.2018