Top-shelf idea

Time will tell if the decision by Oak Bluffs library and other libraries on the Island to eliminate fines will have the positive effect they seek.

At a recent selectmen’s meeting, the Oak Bluffs library became the first on the Island to join a trend across the country — eliminating the punitive system of fines for overdue books.

According to an NPR report, the American Library Association passed a resolution in January that called the fine system “a form of social inequity.” That resolution was the impetus for the decision in Oak Bluffs and at libraries across the country.

For some of us, the fine system instilled a sense of responsibility. One of the very first cards one possesses is a library card, and with it came the responsibility to return the books and other materials checked out by the due date or face the consequence of a fine. But according to library officials, that system acted as a deterrent for some, particularly low-income people who could ill afford the penalty of a fine, but could benefit from the resources at the public library — not only the books, but the other services, like computers and Internet access.

“Research shows that late fines are punitive, that they only go toward creating a barrier for those who require the library services the most,” Oak Bluffs library director Allyson Malik told selectmen in support of the change. “Library fines for overdue materials prevent low-income families and caregivers, especially children, from using the library.”

Selectman Mike Santoro offered his own perspective, saying that as a kid, library fines had that kind of effect on him. “I can remember as a kid in Medford public library, and I’d be scared to death each day that went by; I didn’t want to tell my parents,” he said during the discussion of the new policy.

No one was getting rich off the fine system — that’s for sure.

In fiscal year 2019, the Oak Bluffs library collected $4,036 in late fees — money that didn’t even benefit the library, because it went into the town’s general fund. Under the new system, if a book is not returned, the library patron will first receive automatic extensions, but after several renewals, the book will be considered lost, and the patron billed for a replacement fee.

We do worry that the new system will provide less incentive for people to return books in a timely manner, particularly highly sought-after bestsellers and new releases. Time will tell if that’s the case.

According to the NPR report, in other places where fines have been lifted, library patrons returned materials that had been off the shelves for months. In Chicago, there was a 240 percent increase in books and other items being returned within three weeks of implementing its fine-free policy, the report states. And there were 400 more card renewals over the previous year.

We’re all for any policy that gets more people into libraries to use their terrific services. We just hope that library officials keep a watchful eye to make sure people aren’t taking advantage of the fine-free system to the detriment of those of us who always either return our books on time or request more time in the appropriate manner.