Ilsley Library makes preparations to go fine-free

Fines present a barrier to access, and eliminating them creates more equitable service. — Ilsley Library Director Dana Hart

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library will soon join its Addison County counterparts in going fine free, in part to remove a potential financial barrier that might exist for some local residents in getting their hands on literacy materials.

“It’s something I believe in very deeply,” Ilsley Public Library Director Dana Hart told Middlebury selectboard members at a recent gathering.

Ilsley patrons are currently assessed per-day fines if they don’t return borrowed materials by their due date. These fines are separate from fees patrons are charged for any lost or damaged library items. The fine, for adults, is 10 cents for each day a book is overdue and $1 per day for videos. For children, the fine is 5 cents per day for books and $1 per day for videos.

Once fines and/or fees accrue to $5 or more, the patron’s borrowing privileges are blocked until the patron has paid down his or her debt below the $5 mark.

Hart said it’s “heartbreaking” for library staff to deny a child access to a book because the family might not have the resources to pay down a $5 fine account. And the fines can also make for contentious arguments between library staff and patrons.

“I think we can do better for our community,” Hart said. “Fines present a barrier to access, and eliminating them creates more equitable service.”

She noted the Ilsley has seen a bump in patronage during the COVID-19 pandemic, as economically strapped residents are looking to borrow, rather than buy, books. Hart added the “people most vulnerable to fines are the people who need library materials the most.”

Eliminating fines will remove what is roughly a $9,000-per-year revenue source that will have to be found in the Ilsley budget or the town’s general fund. But Ilsley officials noted fine revenues have been on the decline anyway, given more of the library’s materials are available electronically these days. Access to an electronic version of a book or film simply ceases when the due date arrives.

Fine collections at the Ilsley amounted to $20,512 in 2012, according to information provided by Hart. In 2019, fine collections had dwindled to $9,061.

“We will see a fine deficit, but we can make that up,” she said.

Library officials said they could either eliminate the fine structure in one year, or phase it in over multiple years. They are leaning toward the former strategy.

Middlebury selectboard members support the library’s transition to fine free.

“I don’t think we ever thought of the library as a revenue generating institution,” selectboard member Victor Nuovo said, adding the $9,000 “is not a major shift in our budget.”

 Selectwoman Heather Seeley candidly said she’s racked up her share of library fines through the years, but has repaid them and in doing so, saw the silver lining of making an extra contribution to what is a valuable community service.

She suggested the Ilsley could “pretty quickly” make up the $9,000 fine loss through fundraising.

Joe McVeigh, leader of the Ilsley Library board, said he and his colleagues support the move to fine free.

Selectman Dan Brown praised the library for being proactive on the issue.

“It’s clear this is the way the library should be moving,” he said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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