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North Adams Public Library Dropping Late Fees

The North Adams Public Library

The North Adams, Massachusetts Public Library will no longer charge fines on overdue materials. Library Director Sarah Sanfilippo says the move is an effort to join a national movement to eliminate barriers to what is a public resource. Galvanized by the COVID-19 pandemic, dropping fines across the board expands a 2018 decision to halt charges for children and young adults with overdue materials. WAMC spoke with Sanfilippo about the decision, and why she isn’t concerned about the institution taking a financial hit from the move.

SANFILIPPO: It came from a lot of different places or different angles. We already for a few years have been fine free in the youth department. So children and teens were not accruing fines already. And we have been fine free since the pandemic started, because when everything shut down, we told people don't bring things back and we're not going to charge you a fine if you haven't been able to return things. So we thought this was a good opportunity to act on the idea that fines just in general are not an equitable way of dealing with the public. Some people can get here more easily than others, some people need a little more time with the materials. And it's been a trend nationwide, honestly, for moving to the fine-free model. And we thought we need to join the crowd and eliminate our fines.

WAMC: Now, the obvious question would be, does that eliminate the pressure on folks to respect the shared property of library materials?

I don't think so. Because, you know, we'll still get a reminder that your items are overdue, we still, after a certain amount of time that an item has been overdue, we will still bill for replacement charges. So you're not completely off the hook if you just decide to hang on to something. Or if you lose or damage something, we're still going to send a replacement bill.

Now you talked about this being a larger national trend. Were there other models that you turned to in pursuing making that an official, permanent change for the North Adams public library?

I did look at some of the announcements that I've seen in the news. And the Boston Public Library went fine-free, July 1st I think was the date that they did. I've been hearing it around the country for a few years, and especially here in Massachusetts, it seems like every week I see an announcement from another library that is making the same decision.

So what are you hoping is the overall impact of making this change?

Well, I hope it will make the library seem a little more friendly to people who can't get their things back here on time. I'm hoping some people who may have been turned off by the policy or afraid to come in because they've got something out will feel more welcome. I'm also hoping that it will eliminate the uncomfortable conversations that staff have to have with people- You know, you come in to check something out, you don't even realize you have a fine. And then they've got to tell you at the front desk in front of other people, hey, you know what you owe us $5, you know. So that won't exist anymore. And it should be a more welcoming space, which is something that's important, I think, coming out of the pandemic. After the shutdown people were excited to come back, and people have been supporting us throughout all the different levels of curbside service and appointments and computer use and all that. And I think it's also a nice way to welcome people back into the building as we open back up.

How will this financially impact the institution?

Not very much. We looked a few years back- Obviously, the last year is an anomaly. But 2018, 2019 it was only around $3,000 that came in that way. And the consortium that we belong to in the summer of 2019 went to automatic renewals. So if you have a book for three weeks, you're always welcome to renew it after those three weeks, but sometimes people don't remember or don't think to do it. This time, it automatically will renew for you for another three weeks. After that happened, I looked at those numbers and the number of fines we were taking in seemed to have dropped in half. So I think that sort of tells you that people just needed a few more days or a week or so to get their things back and the amount of fines coming in in the future probably would not be as much as it had been in the past.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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