Iowa City Public Library considers striking children’s and young adult fines

The Iowa City Public Library is considering removing fines on children’s and young adult materials in an effort to increase access.


Alyson Kuennen

Junior fiction novels rest on shelves at the Iowa City Public Library in Iowa City on Tuesday, February 5, 2019.

Caleb McCullough, News Reporter

Library fines are often portrayed as teaching responsibility and civic duty, and they provide a revenue source for libraries. However, some critics say they impose an undue burden on those most vulnerable in the community.

To address the issue, the Iowa City Public Library is considering eliminating fines on children’s and young-adult material, starting in fiscal 2020, in an effort to increase access.

Fines and fees made up $143,358 of the library’s $6.1 million in budget in fiscal 2018, with the library collecting $52,737 in fines on materials in the children’s and teen’s collections — money which went to the city’s general fund, according to library staff.

Eliminating fines is a growing trend across the nation, library children’s services coordinator Angela Pilkington said. Additionally, she said, many small libraries in Iowa have never charged fines.

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The Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque eliminated fines for a period of about six months in 2018 starting in July. Director Susan Henricks said the library saw a 16.7 percent increase in number of card sign-ups for youths, as well as a 4 percent decrease in the number of accounts that were frozen because of fines.

Henricks said the decision to eliminate fines was driven by a desire to eliminate barriers and make the library a more accessible place.

“If I get a fine, I’m middle class — it’s a slap on the wrist,” Henricks said. “Other people get a fine, it’s a barrier to access.”

The Dubuque library’s budget constraints required it to reintroduce fines in January, but Henricks said she hopes the library will be able to remove fines permanently in the future.

Like Dubuque’s library, the Iowa City facility hopes removing the fines will increase access and encourage more people to use the library, Pilkington said. By eliminating fines, the library hopes to make itself more available to low-income residents, though the action is intended to have a broader impact and is not aimed at a specific socioeconomic group.

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“We have all walks of life coming in here,” Pilkington said. “And if their cards are locked at $10, a lot of times $10 will buy a meal.”

One reason the library chose to target children’s and teen’s materials was because, Pilkington said, children aren’t necessarily responsible for returning their books on time. Their parents take them to the library, and their parents are responsible for keeping track of due dates.

“They have no concept of time, they have no concept of money … If there’s a fine on a child’s card, it’s because of the adult in their life that brought them here,” Pilkington said.

The library has worked toward the fine-free goal for a while. The Bookmobile, a mobile library service that makes stops at elementary schools and other Iowa City areas, doesn’t have fees on children’s and young-adult materials. Additionally, digital items at the library have no fines.

Most items at the library carry a fine of 25 cents per day, and patrons are unable to check out items if their cards have accumulated fines of more than $10. If fines are eliminated, Pilkington said, patrons would still be charged for lost or damaged items.

The library’s decision depends on the approval of the city’s fiscal 2020 budget, which will be decided on March 12.

The funding for the lost revenue would come from the city’s racial-equity tool kit, Iowa City Assistant City Manager Ashley Monroe said. The racial-equity tool kit is a process the city uses to identify programs or policies that can have an effect on equity in the city.

“The City Council is supportive of programs that promote equity and inclusion in our community, so this directly ties to the strategic plan,” Monroe said.