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Erie County public libraries to eliminate overdue fines for library materials

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Amherst Audubon Public Library (copy)

Fines for overdue library materials will soon be a thing of the past in Erie County public libraries. Pictured, a scene inside the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library's Audubon Branch in Amherst. (Stephen T. Watson/Buffalo News)

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If you've been hanging onto a years-old library book because you're too broke or embarrassed to return it, here's some good news.

Starting May 1, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system will be doing away with fines for overdue materials. The traditional practice of issuing a cumulative fine for each day your library materials are overdue will soon be a thing of the past.

The library system has already cleared all outstanding overdue daily fines in library card user accounts, as well as hold and unclaimed pick-up fees, according to Interim Director Jeannine Doyle.  

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is expected to announce the dropping of library fines Thursday as one element of his State of the County address. The address, to be held in the Buffalo Bills Fieldhouse, will be the first in-person State of the County that Poloncarz has given in three years, due to the Covid-19 health crisis.

"There's anecdotal evidence, as well as some scientific evidence that the fines don't really do a good job of getting people to bring books back on time," Poloncarz told The News. "But they do keep people from patronizing the libraries. So, working with the library system, we're announcing we're getting rid of the fine system for everyone."

There are some caveats. Library users won't be off the hook for charges associated with the loss or damage of library materials. And an official policy regarding fines still must be approved by the library board.

But the trend of eliminating most library fines is growing across the country. The American Library Association in 2019 approved a resolution urging libraries to eventually end the collection of fines and the reliance on fines as a source of revenue. The association said the collection of fines is an unnecessary barrier to library access.

Poloncarz said the policy change in other library systems has shown that more people will actually use their local libraries "if people aren't worried that they're going to get fined and have to pay for being late to return a book by a week."

That's proven to be the case in the New York City library system, which just eliminated overdue fines in October. The policy change resulted in a wave of returned items and a bump up in library usage from patrons, according to the New York Times. 

"While the rate of overdue materials has been found to be equal for library cardholders regardless of income, those in low-income households are more likely to have their accounts blocked due to inability to pay overdue fines," Doyle, the Erie County library system's interim director, said in a statement. "The value of increased access to library resources for the residents of Erie County outweighs the loss of revenue."

Historically, fines have represented a small amount of the Erie County library system's overall budget, she said. Moreover, with more library patrons borrowing digital content instead of physical library materials, fines are becoming a dwindling source of library revenue.

Fines on borrowed digital library materials aren't an issue because once digital materials like e-books are due, they are automatically removed from the library card holder's account, unless the materials are renewed.

The library system will use savings from last year's budget to offset the loss in fine revenue this year, Doyle said.

The new policy will mark the first major library system change under new Buffalo & Erie County Library Director John Spears, who officially begins work on Monday. Spears, who comes from Colorado Springs, Colo., is a Chicago native who has served as the chief librarian and chief executive officer of the Pikes Peak Library District since 2016.

Poloncarz's announcement about the elimination of library fines is part of his four-part "Back on Track Agenda," being formally announced on Thursday, to help children recover from the pandemic.

The library board is set to vote on two resolutions regarding the fine elimination plan on April 21. The library system plans to offer more details about the change in the fine system at a news conference immediately after the board meeting.

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"It's going to focus on issues of resilience," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told The Buffalo News about his State of the County address. "The county, in itself, cannot solve the issues that are politicizing and creating divisiveness, but hopefully, we can do things to help bring the community together."

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