Late fines are now a thing of the past at the Mountain View Library. Starting this month, the city's public library is eliminating fees on all overdue items in its collection, including books, movies and music.
The new policy comes as part of a larger trend by libraries slashing late fees across the U.S. In the Bay Area, the counties of Alameda, San Mateo and Contra Costa have each taken steps to get rid of library late fees in recent months. San Francisco is currently considering a similar move while San Jose has already eliminated late fees on its children's materials.
The reason behind this change is an evolving perception among librarians, said Tracy Gray, Mountain View's library services director. Traditionally, late fees were seen as a necessary incentive to force borrowers to return item. But recently, more librarians have come to regard the fines as a deterrent that pushes away patrons, especially those who can least afford to pay them.
"This goes to the philosophical side of the library profession," Gray said. "We want books to get in the hands of people, but if patrons have blocked accounts, then they don't have the ability to access these books."
In total, the city has about $56,000 in unpaid fines, which has caused a small number of suspended library cards. About 2% of card-holders have blocked accounts, meaning they owe $25 or more in late fees.
This pales in comparison to San Jose's library system, which revealed in 2016 that it was sending out debt collectors to rein in more than $6.8 million in late fees. About four out of every 10 library card holders in San Jose reportedly had some kind late fees on their account. Since then, the South Bay city has enacted a series of fee reductions, but the total debt among its patrons still stands at $2.7 million.
Some library experts now believe that the longstanding logic behind late fees may be flawed. A 2014 analysis by the Colorado state library system couldn't find any solid evidence that late fines actually improve return rates. People generally return books and other materials at comparable rates regardless of whether they risk a penalty. What is more clear about late fees, according to the Colorado study, is they end up reducing public usage of a library, especially among low-income households.
An early test case for the idea of eliminating library late fees was conducted by the city of Vernon Hills, Illinois. The Midwest city lost out on about $45,000 it would normally collect in overdue fines. But that loss was negligible when library directors factored in the staff time and resources that they saved by getting rid of the fines, said Catherine Savage, a Vernon Area Public Library spokeswoman. The overall experience has been great, she said.
"The world continued to turn on its axis minus the late fees that we thought we needed," she said. "This has been gaining momentum across the country and that's really encouraging because it does provide the widest possible access to the library."
In Mountain View, library officials have been considering an end to late fees for nearly a year, Gray said. The idea had a great reception among librarians, many of whom consider collecting overdue fines to be the worst part of the job. In her own experience, Gray remembers having to deal with parents who were in tears because they couldn't afford the $20 in late fees on their children's books.
Gray pointed out that the idea also makes sense for Mountain View because a large portion of the city's collection is now digitized. Volumes like e-books are automatically returned once the time is up, making late fees irrelevant.
But if there are no fines, how can a library enforce good behavior? Couldn't a patron just borrow 100 books and never return them, or sell them for easy money?
While late fees are going away, Gray pointed out that the Mountain View Library will still be charging anyone who loses an item or doesn't return it. If an item isn't returned in two weeks, patrons will get a bill for the full cost to replace it.
Another important caveat is that old late fees will remain in place. Library patrons who have outstanding debt on their accounts will still be expected to pay them off, Gray said.
"We want people not to be stressed out about returning their items," she said. "But the policy isn't retroactive."