Starting Jan. 2, county libraries will no longer collect fines on overdue materials

WHATCOM — The Whatcom County Library System will soon bid farewell to library fines.

The WCLS joins a nationwide trend as libraries eliminate fines for overdue library books.

WCLS Community Relations Manager Mary Vermillion said her notes reveal that the WCLS has been looking at eliminating fines since as far back as 2013. Back then, WCLS eliminated fines on youth materials but stopped short of cutting all fines. She said the library system isn’t quite sure how long fines have been part of WCLS.

The WCLS is sure, however, that fines haven’t been a large part of its revenue, and fines collected have actually been decreasing over the years to the point that they are unsustainable as a reliable source of income.

“It’s not a significant part of our revenue,” Vermillion said. “Fines represent .6 percent of the total system budget.”

However, some patrons have accrued enough fines that they are prevented from using the library. Vermillion said 8,422 people currently have $10 or more in library fines, meaning they are blocked from checking out materials. That represents about 8.6 percent of all library cardholders.

However, on Jan. 2, 2020, those fines will be retroactively eliminated.

“Everybody will have a clean slate as of Jan. 2,” Vermillion said.

Vermillion said research shows that eliminating fines on overdue materials doesn’t have a significant impact on return rates. Eliminating fines does, however, provide equitable access to library materials and serves as a way to welcome people back to the library who haven’t been visiting because of fines.

“We just want to encourage more people to come to the library,” Vermillion said.

Eliminating fines also eliminates staff time spent collecting and processing financial transactions, Vemillion said.

  hile the library system will no longer charge for overdue books, Vermillion said it does still expect patrons to return their materials.

  “While there will no longer be overdue fines, there will be replacement costs for unreturned or damaged items. That will vary based on the book,” Vermillion said.

  he Bellingham Public Library is not technically part of the WCLS, but the two entities do partner on providing books to their respective patrons, and Bellingham’s libraries are also eliminating fines.

“Our goal is to improve access to libraries,” Bellingham Public Library director Rebecca Judd said. “We want to ensure that all Bellingham and Whatcom County residents — regardless of their circumstances — have easy and equitable access to their libraries.”

WCLS executive director Christine Perkins said circumstances shouldn’t stop people from checking out library materials.

“We understand that it’s sometimes hard to return materials to the library,” Perkins said. “Weather, family demands, schedule changes — life has a way of confounding our best plans. Some community members are also challenged by uncertain housing or transportation.”

Both the Seattle and Chicago public libraries have stopped charging fines for overdue books.

The WCLS celebrated its 75th anniversary on Nov. 7 with cupcakes, 1940s-themed activities and historical displays.