For 2019: Altamont Free Library to do away with late fees on children’s books

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Joe Burke looks up from his work at the Altamont Free Library on Friday. Burke, the library’s director, is happy that, starting with the New Year, the library won’t charge fines on kids’ overdue books.

ALTAMONT — Starting in January, the Altamont Free Library will not charge overdue fines on any children’s books for one year, all of 2019, said Joe Burke, the library’s director.

There is a movement among public libraries, Burke said, to do away with overdue fees; the idea is that a fine, however insignificant, undermines the library’s mission of providing to all equal access to information. There is also strong evidence, he said, that doing so increases circulation and brings people (and items) back to the library.

Since libraries started notifying patrons with email about approaching due dates, and also handling renewals electronically, the money collected for fines has declined. Last year, Altamont, which has an annual budget of $163,700, received about $350 in fines for overdue children’s books.

In 2017, New York City’s three systems — the New York Public Library, the Queens Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library — in a one-time amnesty,  forgave all late fees (which amounted to $2.25 million) for all children 17 and under and unblocked their cards; 160,000 children regained borrowing privileges.

Last year, during a six-week fine-forgiveness period, 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.

In June, the city of Baltimore’s public-library system announced it would eliminate overdue fines (it had collected about $100,000 annually) while also clearing 26,000 people of $186,000 in penalties; the move unblocked the cards of 13,000 borrowers.

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, Burke said.

“We’re a little bit more cautious. We’re taking this first step; it’s a one-year trial to see what the impact is,” Burke said of eliminating the fines on only children’s books. “My hope is that, if we demonstrate that we’re increasing circulation for children’s materials and that we’re getting people coming back into the library [who have] been away, we’ll be able preserve or extend the policy. That’s my hope.

“The biggest motivator, I think though, for me and for the board, is that many of us know from personal experience, growing up in and around libraries, that it can easily happen, that you keep a few too many things a little bit too long. And when you’re a kid, that can be your first feeling of being in trouble.

“So, that’s not what we’re about. We’re not about shame; we’re not about trouble. What we are about is equity of access for all people, regardless of income.”

With $5 in overdue fines being the point at which a child’s ability to borrow is cut off, Burke said, it can be pretty easy to lose access. But the Altamont Free Library also makes it pretty easy to renew books, he said, explaining that books may be renewed online, through the Upper Hudson Library System mobile app, or over the phone.

Those books are a collective resource, Burke said; they’ve been purchased for the good of the entire community. “When I send out overdue notices, I always handwrite a note on [each notice] … The note isn’t about the fine,” Burke said, the note asks the borrower: “Please return this item so that other people can use it.”

And the library really needs those books back.

Last month was the highest November circulation the library has had in 10 years, Burke said, possibly ever, with 2,689 items circulating, up 21.5 over November 2017. October 2018, with 2,842 items in circulation, was the highest October circulation the library has had. The Altamont Free Library has a total collection of 13,175 items — about 11,1000 books and 2,075 audio and video items.

Why is circulation so high in the age of online everything?

To start, Burke said, the library is more than a very quiet place with books. There are children’s programs like story time, which takes place twice a week, he said, along with crafting classes, trivia contests, book clubs, potluck dinners, and in the summer months, along with the out-of-school reading program, Sunday movie matinees.

“We’ve had a bumper crop of kids in the village coming to story times,” he said. A lot of new families are coming into the library as enrollment at Altamont Elementary School has increased, he said. “They’ve had to add a section; they’ve had to add classes,” Burke said. “Just five years ago, they were talking about closing, right?”

Changes to the arcane classification system have increased readership as well.

In the children’s nonfiction section, Burke said, rather than having an impenetrable wall of book spines arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System, there are front-facing books and signs that identify topics like: “Dinosaurs” or “Horses.”

“That has driven a lot of our increase in children’s nonfiction,” he said.

Burke also credits his staff, saying that they do an excellent job making everyone feel welcome in the library, and he’s not just blowing smoke.

Last year, the library was named a Star Library by the Library Journal, the community’s best-read trade publication.

Seven-thousand-five-hundred libraries, Burke said, are grouped into one of nine budget tiers. They are then rated based on five kinds of per-capita use: visits, circulation, electronic circulation, public-access computer use, and program attendance.

Altamont was in the $100,000-to-$199,999 tier, Burke said, along with 1,200 other libraries from across the country.

The Altamont Free Library placed 14th; it’s the only library of the 36 in the Upper Hudson Library System to be named a Star Library in the past 10 years, Burke said.

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