Wichita, Kan. — Kate Webb and her 2-year-old son, Teddy, sat in the children’s section of Wichita’s Advanced Learning Library watching an educational video about animal sounds on a brightly colored monitor.
“What’s that?” Teddy asked, pointing.
“That’s an owl,” his mother said. “Hoooo, hoooo!”
The pair sang along to a chorus of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” and then headed for the shelves of picture books, where Teddy collected a pile to check out.
“He’s my COVID baby, so this is our first time here,” Webb said. “His big sister loves this place.”
Kansas libraries are finally open for business as usual, and many are encouraging readers to revisit by eliminating overdue fines and clearing patrons of their debt. That could particularly increase use of libraries by people with the lowest incomes.
The State Library of Kansas tracks statistics for 320 library systems. Of those, about two-thirds don’t charge fines for late materials — and the number is growing.
“It’s definitely a trend that’s been building over time, and the pandemic has something to do with it,” said Cindy Roupe, the state’s acting librarian.
Most libraries that closed branches or reduced their operating hours during the pandemic decided to suspend overdue fines, Roupe said. “Then some libraries said, ‘Let’s just make this permanent.’”
The Wichita Public Library’s board of directors recently approved a plan to do away with late fees. The Wichita City Council will have the final say on the plan during budget talks this summer.
“It’s really something that is based in the fundamentals of how libraries have always lived, which is about making sure that everybody has access,” said Jaime Prothro, the city’s library director. “We’re looking at how we can re-engage members of the community who aren’t using us regularly — or haven’t over the course of many years.”
About half of Wichita’s residents have a library card, Prothro said. But right now about 44,000 of them are blocked from checking out materials because they owe more than $10 in fees.
When library officials mapped those fines by address, they learned that households in low-income areas of the city owed the most. That means late fees are driving away groups who stand to benefit the most from free resources, Prothro said.
“A lot of communities are looking at the financial and racial equity that this kind of change can have,” she said.
More than three-fourths of children in the Wichita school district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which is an indicator of poverty. Prothro said eliminating library fines could help early literacy efforts.
“When we did outreach to schools and talked with students, their parents were often preventing them from getting that card because of the worry about the financial overhead of borrowing,” she said.
The Urban Libraries Council says nearly every state in the country has at least one public library that has gone fine-free.
The Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library dropped overdue charges in 2019 with a policy it calls “Freedom from Fines.” That same year, the American Library Association issued a resolution calling fines a form of “social inequity” and urged libraries to find ways to eliminate them.
The Lawrence Public Library went fine-free in January 2020, saying that eliminating punitive overdue fines “removes an access barrier and ensures that everyone can learn, connect, create, and grow – equally.”
Lawrence borrowers are still charged for lost or damaged items, but charges are dropped for lost items returned in good condition.
Under Wichita’s current fee structure, the library charges 25 cents a day for books and most other items past their due date. Blu-rays and DVDs cost $1 a day.
That may not sound like much. But if you visit the library with several children and they each check out several books, late fees can pile up quickly.
“One of the … philosophies behind this is to really recognize that people have lives. People have busy lives, and the library’s role is to eliminate as many barriers as possible so that people can freely and, without worry, be able to borrow,” Prothro said.
In October, the Wichita library system eliminated its 25-cent hold fee to reserve a book or transfer it to a different branch. Prothro said more people are searching the online catalog and placing more holds.
If late fees are eliminated, patrons would still have due dates for materials they check out. But they’d have a two-week grace period to return the item without penalty. After that, they’d be required to return the item or pay a replacement fee to check out more materials.
“It really does shift the worry away from our borrowers, as far as, ‘I’m gonna make a mistake in my life, and then owe money.’ I think that everybody hates that,” Prothro said.
A 2019 study showed that libraries that go fine-free see no significant difference in return rates. After a Colorado library system eliminated overdue fines in 2015, officials reported that 95% of materials were returned within a week of their due date.
Along the same lines, libraries with amnesty programs see large numbers of long-overdue or lost items returned after the fear of fines disappears.
Eliminating overdue charges would cut the Wichita library’s revenue by about $13,000 a year, she said — about 5% of its overall budget. But library officials say the benefits for both patrons and staff would outweigh the financial hit.
“I suspect that it costs more in staff time to try to get those fines than what they bring in,” said Roupe, the state librarian. “That is staff time that could be better spent doing other things.”
Amnesty from late fees might get Wichita residents to bring back nearly 30,000 unreturned items, which are valued at more than $570,000. But more importantly, said Prothro, the Wichita librarian, it might get them back in the doors.
“We want to be the busiest place in town,” she said. “It’s the only place in our city where you aren’t expected to spend money. You can come in here, pluck a book off the shelf and just sit here and enjoy. You’re welcome here.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.