Clean Slate

Say farewell to library fines

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

By the end of 2019, I had approximately $3 in late fees at the Bellingham Public Library that I kept meaning to take care of. I knew once the amount reached $10, I’d no longer be able to proceed to the checkout lane. 

But my procrastination paid off. On Jan. 2, 2020, those overdue fines had been forgiven and I—along with every other library cardholder in Whatcom County—was able to start the new year with a clean slate.

And although people who check out books, movies, CDs, magazines and other materials at the BPL or Whatcom County Library System venues are still responsible for paying for damaged or lost materials, the good news is that the change is permanent. In order to make sure everybody has continual access to library materials, late fees will no longer be accrued.

“We began talking to patrons about this change toward the end of 2019, and the response has been positive,” Bellingham Public Library Director Rebecca Judd says. “Our community supports our goal to improve access to libraries for all Bellingham and Whatcom County residents—regardless of their circumstances.”

Christine Perkins, executive director of the WCLS and frequent Cascadia Weekly contributor, is also on board with the new agenda, pointing out that fines were a financial barrier to a number of people using their local book hubs.

“We understand that it’s sometimes hard to return materials to the library,” she says. “Weather, family demands, schedule changes; life has a way of confounding our best plans. Some community members are also challenged by uncertain housing or transportation.”

Whatcom County joins a growing list of libraries across the state who have already eliminated fines, including Seattle Public Library, Fort Vancouver Regional Library, Kitsap Regional Library, Port Townsend Public Library, San Juan Island Public Library, Sno-Isle libraries, Jefferson County Library, and Spokane public libraries.

A Frequently Asked Questions primer on BPL and WCLS websites provides more of the particulars, but suffice it to say the powers that be are confident the lack of fines won’t lead to bad behavior. The majority of library borrowers already return their materials on time, they note, and research shows eliminating fines on overdue material has little significant impact on return rates.

“We do not believe that overdue fines teach responsibility, nor do we think that is part of the library’s mission,” they say. “It is our job to provide equitable access to information. By imposing fines and prohibiting people from borrowing books when the fines add up, we are negatively impacting the people who may need us the most.”

For more details, go to http://www.bellinghampubliclibrary.org or http://www.wcls.org

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