Digital borrowing explodes at VPL, while book borrowing drops off

— Photo from Voorheesville Public Library

Sarah Clark, director of the Voorheesville Public Library, plays with kids at story time this past fall. As the library has become a community meeting place, Clark said that digital borrowing has increased dramatically over the past year, as the circulation of the physical items has dropped by near one-fifth since 2016.

VOORHEESVILLE —  A recent fine-free week at the library here points up the trend that borrowing of electronic items, which carry no fines, are increasing while circulation of physical items is declining.

The Voorheesville Public Library’s annual “Fine Amnesty Week” saw a decrease of 8.5 percent in returned items compared to last year’s amnesty week, but an increase of about 7 percent from two years ago.

“I think, in general … it’s a trend,” that libraries’ physical circulations are down, Sarah Clark, the library’s director, told The Enterprise. In the past three years, according to Clark, the library’s physical circulation — which includes books, DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks on disc — went from 109,335 items in 2016 to 88,886 items in 2018, nearly a 20-percent drop.

However, in the last year, circulation at Voorheesville is up significantly for digital items, Clark said. Ebooks went up by 20 percent; audio books are up by 36 percent; and online periodicals went up 37 percent.

“So across the board it was a 28-percent increase,” Clark said of the library’s digital circulation, adding that digital items never have a fine.

The library did not keep track of the overdue fines on the items that were returned between Jan. 2 and Jan. 10. “Items were checked in with ‘fines waived’ so there is no record of what those fines might have been,” Clark told The Enterprise in an email. “The focus of the ‘Fine Amnesty Week’ is to encourage people to look for and return items that have been lost, rather than to advertise a free fine time period.”

During its 2017-18 fiscal year, the library took in almost $12,000 in fees; however, according to Clark, that number, in addition to overdue fines, includes income from the use of the library’s printer, copier, and fax machine.

There is a movement among public libraries to do away with overdue fees, Joe Burke, director of the Altamont Free Library, told The Enterprise last month. The idea is that a fine, however insignificant, undermines the library’s mission of providing to all equal access to information. Starting this month and continuing through the end of 2019, the Altamont Free Library will not charge overdue fines on any children’s books.

In 2017, in one example of a very successful fine-forgiveness period, over the first six weeks of the year, close to 700,000 items, worth about $330,000 in overdue fines, were returned to the San Francisco Public Library; about 12,250 of items had been more than 60 days past due, and had an overdue-fine value of close to $236,000.

Locally, the Albany Public Library as well as libraries in Brunswick, Grafton, and Castleton, all in Rensselaer County, have done away with all overdue fines.

The Voorheesville Public Library never charges fines for its paperback collections, children’s cardboard books, or magazines.

Clark would not comment about doing away completely with overdue fines, saying it was a decision that would have to be made by the library’s board of trustees. But she added that it had been a constant topic of conversation at the monthly meetings she attends with the other directors of the Upper Hudson Library System.

As of December 2018, with 3,028 patrons, Voorheesville — with a 2019 budget of $1.18 million — had a total collection of 49,335 items — 40,974 print items and 8,361 non-print items. Last year, according to the library, 116,555 total items were borrowed.

For comparison, with about 1,960 patrons, the Altamont Free Library — budget of $163,700 —  has a total collection of 13,175 items; about 11,1000 books and 2,075 audio and video items.

Voorheesville and Altamont are two different types of libraries.

The Altamont Free Library is considered an “Association Library,” which means its trustees serve as volunteers and have no power to levy taxes. It receives its funding by asking the municipalities it serves — Altamont, Guilderland, and Knox — for money as well as through grants and fundraising. It is the only free library in the state that is inside a public-library district — Guilderland’s.

The Voorheesville Public Library is a “School District Public Library,” with an elected board of trustees that has the power to levy taxes. Its funding comes from a property-tax lexy with a budget that has to be approved each May by the residents of the Voorheesville Central School District.

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