Anchorage Public Library will no longer charge fines for overdue materials

Information about local housing, employment, food and health resources on display at Anchorage’s Loussac Library on April 9, 2019. (Photo by Kirsten Swann/Alaska Public Media)

Starting this month, borrowers who use the Anchorage Public Library will no longer be charged late or overdue fines for library items.

Anchorage Public Library Director Mary Jo Torgeson said the policy change is aimed at making the library more accessible to the people who need its services the most.

“The issue is: we want kids to be using libraries, and we want families to using libraries,” she said.

At 50 cents per day, staff found that the Anchorage Public Library’s late and overdue fines are high compared to other libraries. Torgeson said that patrons expressed over and over that high fees were stopping them from using the library. For example, if someone checked out five books but couldn’t return them all on time, they would incur $25 in fines over 10 days. At that point, their library card would be blocked and they would not be able to use many library services.

This can become a barrier for patrons, especially families and children, Torgeson said.

“Money’s tight for families,” she said.

The new policy is in line with a national movement. Library systems in Seattle, Chicago, San Diego and other major cities have also done away with fines in recent years. Last year, the American Library Association called monetary fines “a form of social inequity,” and encouraged libraries to find a way to eliminate them.

In Anchorage, staff found that fines were largely evenly spread across demographics. But, the library reports that there are currently almost 70,000 lost items and nearly 12,000 blocked library cards.

Torgeson said the library has considered changing the policy for a while. Trying to account for the governor’s budget priorities or the health Alaska’s economy caused some initial hesitation. “But, at some point, there’s never a right time. You just jump in,” she explained.

While fines from overdue items are a revenue source, the library found that it cost more time and effort to collect the fines than the fines were ultimately worth. Additionally, Torgeson said, fine collection led to a negative experience for both patrons and staff.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz supported the change and agreed that going fine free makes the library more accessible.

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“It makes Anchorage a more welcoming community,” he said. “It is a more intelligent use of the scarce resources that we have so that we can deploy library resources in ways that provide better service.”

There will still be a fee for lost or damaged items and cards will be blocked once an account accrues $25 in those fees. But Torgeson hopes the policy change will help the library system be a better steward of public goods.

“We’re not a business, we’re a government service, and that’s what we should be focusing on,” she said. “Particularly in Alaska, the reading scores are bad. Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can as a community to bring children into the library?”

Other library systems have taken various approaches to getting rid of the fines, including simply wiping them out all together. For the Anchorage system, patrons must contact the library directly, either in-person, over the phone, or online and they will waive any outstanding overdue fines.