Closing the books on late fees: Henrietta and Rush libraries are eliminating overdue fines as of 9/1
When she was growing up in Hamlin, the nearest public library - the Seymour branch in Brockport - was a refuge for Adrienne Pettinelli.
"I lived in a difficult home circumstance and reading was so critical to me," she said. "It was critical to me to understand the life I was living and it was critical to me to understand how to get to a different life."
As a young person, Pettinelli was captivated by the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, finding hope in the idea that disparate people could come together to help each other and improve their lives. She finished the voluminous series and then started reading it over again.
She lived about a half-hour away from the library, so she said it wasn't always easy for her to get there to return her books on time, but a staff member there would always waive her fines.
Those acts of grace, she said, are what drove her to become a librarian. She wants kids to have the same opportunities to find a new world and new possibilities in their public library.
"Those kids are out there and you don't know who they are when they walk in the door," she said. "They look like every other kid, you know, but they have these needs."
Pettinelli, now director of the Henrietta Public Library, is remembering her childhood as she helps usher in a new era for local library patrons.
As of Sept. 1, the Henrietta and Rush public libraries will become the first in Monroe County to do away with late fines on books and other materials for all users. They are still collecting fines for lost and damaged items.
Seven others — Rochester, Fairport, Hamlin, Irondequoit, Parma, Pittsford, and Webster — don't charge for children and teen materials turned in past their due date.
A growing number of libraries around the U.S. are eliminating some or all late fees. The entire Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system went completely fine-free on May 1. Other local libraries outside of Monroe County, including the Macedon Public Library in Wayne County and the Livonia Public Library in Livingston County, did the same this year.
In 2019, the governing body of the American Library Association adopted a resolution on library fines as a form of social inequality. The ALA's position is that the fines act as a barrier to library services for many people.
Pettinelli agrees. She sees this as a matter of equity, access, and social justice.
"The kinds of things we see are a parent who's standing in front of us telling a kid, 'You can only check out two items because I'm worried we won't get them back on time," she said.
On a recent morning, library patrons in Henrietta reacted to the news that they would no longer be required to pay for material they returned after the due date.
"We're going to be here more often than normal," said Tameka Stewart, who was in the children's section with her young daughter, Ariah.
"A lot of people, they forget sometimes that they even have the books," Stewart said. "Once I had a niece staying with me one time and I rented two books for her and she left, she went to New York City with the books, and I had to go there and get it."
Chrystal Balence, the mother of three children — twin boys and daughter — called the news "pretty exciting."
"I don't want to take advantage," Balence said, "but it is a nice incentive to be able to say I'm not going to have to worry about (owing late fees)."
Murray Weaver, who was browsing the fiction selection, was a bit dismayed when he heard about the new policy.
"Why would they eliminate late fees?" he asked. "People are lazy. I'm old-fashioned and I believe they should charge. When you get free books, accountability is everything. Nobody's held accountable."
Pettinelli said that's the No. 1 pushback she hears about the fine-free policy. She argues that if individual families still want to hold themselves and their children accountable in some way, they can.
"But the reality for some kids is they don't have transportation to get to the library, even if they have the wherewithal to figure out when items are due," she said. "So why would we punish them for that?"
Jennifer Ries-Taggart, executive director of the Brighton Memorial Library, said she's not entirely adverse to going fine-free, but she worries about potential unintended consequences.
One is the economic impact of losing revenue from overdue charges, which she says averages about $65,000 a year in Brighton. That figure includes $9,400 in fees for items patrons want to put on hold, as well as fines for lost or damaged material.
"So we're not talking small change," she said. "It's not something that we could just absorb into our budget."
Ries-Taggart said she feels responsible for protecting the investment of town taxpayers, who foot the bill for the library's collection.
In Henrietta, revenue from overdue charges has been steadily decreasing in the last decade.
Pettinelli said that's due to electronic reminders and easy online renewals. Also, e-books don't result in late charges because they automatically return themselves.
In 2021, the Henrietta library collected $9,725 in late fees compared to $18,910 in 2019. 2020 was an anomaly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when many libraries offered an amnesty period on borrowed items. That year, the total was $6,274.
The Rush Public Library saw a similar decline in late fee revenue, according to library director Kirsten Flass. In 2012, she said fine collections totaled $5,563.
"This year, we might make $1,500," she said.
Flass, like Pettinelli, said she sees firsthand the consequences that overdue fines can have on a family or a senior who is on a fixed income.
"While some patrons don’t mind paying fines," she said, "other patrons stopped using the library because fines had become a barrier and we wanted to improve access for everyone."
Pettinelli and Flass said by working together with their respective library boards to eliminate late fees, they have the potential to increase library access for all families within the Rush-Henrietta Central School District, where 46% of the students are economically disadvantaged, according to the New York State Department of Education.
While Ries-Taggart said she understands her colleagues' position, she thinks a ban on late fees could be unfair to those who have to wait for a book because the last person who borrowed it has no financial incentive to return it.
"It would have a trickle-down effect for patrons who can no longer get the item they want due to either it not being returned and/or the library not having the budget to replace it," she said.
But Patricia Uttaro, director of the Monroe County Library system and the Rochester Public Library, said when all Rochester library branches eliminated late fees on children and teen materials in 2016, naysayers predicted that people would take advantage of the policy and not return items on time or at all.
"That was the big, 'Oh my gosh! All our stuff is gonna be gone! Nobody's gonna bring it back,'" she said.
"And that has 100% not happened."
In Macedon, where the removal of late fees applies to every patron, library director Stacey Wicksall said the change has created a community of goodwill.
"We've noticed that donations coming into the library have increased," she said. "But more importantly what we've noticed is, people don't have obstacles to using the library."
With more libraries adopting a no-fee policy, Ries-Taggart expects to be asked by community members when the Brighton Memorial Library will make the change.
But for now, she remains unconvinced that fine-free is the way to go.
"I understand if it was a different kind of fee that was beyond your ability to control," she said. "But something like a fine, there is a way around. You just return the material on time."
Uttaro believes it's not that simple for everyone. She heard about a woman who came into Central Library one night who had to decide between paying off what she owed in late fees so she could borrow books she needed for school, or pay her bus fare to get home.
“Sometimes people who don’t have economic challenges don’t understand that." Uttaro said.
“We can’t solve poverty, but the library can do something that makes it a little less challenging for people.”
Uttaro said she has been encouraging fine-free policies for years, but the Rochester library board has not reached a consensus on whether to expand this to include all users of city library branches.
She said they're running a test at Central Library this month on the manpower costs of collecting fines. Uttaro said this is not always a simple transaction at the circulation desk.
"Fines are probably one of the top things that people come into the library really, really mad about, and that takes time, more likely from supervisors and sometimes from me, as the library director, to work with people through some real anger," she said.
Back in Henrietta, Pettinelli is keeping her eyes open for any long-lost items making their way back onto the library shelves once people hear that no longer comes with a hefty fine.
"About five years ago, we got back an actual LP record from back when we circulated those, which was decades ago," she said. "So, these things do pop up already."