OTTUMWA — Every now and then you see a headline about someone returning a long-overdue library book, one that had racked up hundreds, even thousands of dollars in late fees.
That won’t be a headline in Ottumwa.
The Ottumwa Public Library is waiving all fines for overdue materials as of Jan. 6, 2020. The waiver is part of a policy shifting away from fines, which will no longer be charged.
Director Sonja Ferrell said the change is one that a number of libraries around the country have made in recent years. For the Ottumwa library, serious consideration began with the 2018 strategic plan. It took a while to make sure the numbers on fines collected were really where staff anecdotally thought it was, but once the number-crunching was done, the shift was an obvious move.
“Annually, we’ve been averaging just under $3,000” in fines collected, Ferrell said. “It wasn’t very much.”
The effect of fines on the library’s bottom line was out of proportion to the effect it had on patrons who didn’t feel they could use the library when they had outstanding fines. The library also offers important access to the internet and other services, and if someone couldn’t afford to pay an overdue fine they likely couldn’t afford those services at home. So unpaid fines posed an obstacle beyond whether someone could check out another book.
Ferrell said those concerns had a disproportionate effect on low-income patrons, a concern that is particularly acute when those people have young children who can benefit from the library.
The new policy applies to fines for overdue materials but does not change how long items can be checked out for. Anything more than 60 days overdue is still considered lost, and patrons will be charged for lost or damaged items. And, no, you won’t be able to check out additional items until overdue items are returned.
But, as of Jan. 6, at least returning the items won’t come with a bill.
“We just want to get the books back and get them out to the next patron,” Ferrell said.