SP Library Might Discard Late Fines

Library fines “disproportionately affect people with socio-economic disadvantages, and that’s not what the library stands for, that’s not really in keeping with our mission,’’ said Cathy Billings (above), director of the South Pas Public Library. Photo by Henk Friezer

Starting this spring, the Los Angeles Public Library will cease charging fines for overdue materials. The South Pasadena Library might soon follow the LAPL’s lead.

“I think it’s very good idea,’’ Cathy Billings, director of the South Pas library, told the Review this week following last week’s announcement by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti that the LAPL will soon end its century-old policy of fining users for late returns.

The move is part of a national trend, aimed at expanding library use, particularly among less economically advantaged citizens.

“It’s something that’s been happening in libraries for several years now,” Billings said. “(Library fines) disproportionately affect people with socio-economic disadvantages, and that’s not what the library stands for, that’s not really in keeping with our mission.

“It’s quite a big deal that the LAPL is making the change, and I think it will set the stage for a lot of smaller libraries in the region to make the same change.’’

Los Angeles, with 73 branches, is hardly the first library system to discontinue overdue fines, but so far it is the largest. In California, San Diego was among the first to go the fine-less route. Chicago, Denver, Oakland, Salt Lake City and San Francisco are among other major systems to follow suit. In all, an estimated 180 systems, large and small, across the country have gone fine-less, according to one report.

While the LAPL will be eliminating late fines, fees to replace lost or damaged items will remain.

Currently, the South Pas library – which has one branch, located at 1100 Oxley St. – charges 25 cents per item per day for overdue materials of any kind, with a $10 cap. For kids, the cap is $5. (The LAPL’s rates are 35 cents a day for books, magazines and audio books, 15 cents a day for children’s materials and $1 per day for DVDs).

Billings, in an interview with the Review, said she will recommend to the city’s Library Board of Trustees that South Pas at least begin to seriously explore moving away from such fines, if not all at once then perhaps in stages. As an example, she said, perhaps fines for kids could be eliminated first — though she did not rule out an across-the-board elimination of fines.

Economics will factor into any such decisions.

“It’s not something that’s just a matter for the library – we need to look at it in the context of the city’s overall budget,’’ said Billings.

South Pas has struggled financially in recent years, with voters passing “Measure A” just last month, adding a three-quarter cent sales tax to help offset an expected budget gap.

But Billings indicated the city’s fiscal challenges probably would not be a roadblock to a fine-less library, as revenues from fines were only about $48,000 in 2019 – just a small fraction of the library’s overall $1.874 million annual budget in fiscal 2019-20.

Still, Billings did not minimize that number, particularly since the revenues generated by library fines go into the city’s general fund, rather than directly back into the library’s coffers.

“We just need to do the research so we can make a recommendation to the city (as to how to do process),’’ Billings said.

“The staff here have been watching this pretty closely for the last few years,’’ she added. “I think from a staff perspective, we are very interested in looking at this. The Library Board of Trustees will have it on their agenda for 2020, and will be looking to make a recommendation to the city next year. Definitely, we’ll be addressing it in 2020.’’

A change could come as early as July, which is the start of the fiscal 2020-2021 year, Billings said.

In Los Angeles, fines were eliminated by a unanimous vote of the Board of Library Commissioners, according to Garcetti’s office.

As for fines acting as an inducement for timely returns, Billings said the opposite is actually true – she said the elimination of fines has, in fact, increased the rate of library materials being returned.

“Fines have not been much of a deterrent,” Billings said.

As an example, she said, while South Pas has not had a “fine forgiveness” period, the LAPL has done that – and the return rate soared.

“All these materials came back that wouldn’t have come back,’’ Billings said – adding, “Circulation statistics have also gone up after fines have been eliminated.”

Specifically, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story, when the LAPL offered amnesty from fines three years ago, it led to the return of 64,633 overdue items, the issuing of some 8,000 new library cards and the unblocking of more than 13,000 library accounts that had been frozen because of delinquency.

“The burden of the fines placed on Angelenos is significant — for students, for families who don’t have a lot of spending money, for seniors on a fixed income,’’ Garcetti said last week when he announced the new LAPL rules.

“Library fines can be a barrier to tapping into all the incredible resources that we have here in our libraries.”

In South Pas, about 350,000 items were checked out last year – the majority of them books and e-books, but also audiobooks, DVDs and CDs, library records show.