Chatham’s libraries waive late fees, adjust practices

$20K in revenues forfeited; library not wanting to burden borrowers

Posted 8/12/20

In a bid to promote responsible pandemic behavior and foster a welcoming environment, Chatham County Public Libraries is waiving overdue fines and adjusting book-handling practices.

“The purpose …

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Chatham’s libraries waive late fees, adjust practices

$20K in revenues forfeited; library not wanting to burden borrowers

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Posted

In a bid to promote responsible pandemic behavior and foster a welcoming environment, Chatham County Public Libraries is waiving overdue fines and adjusting book-handling practices.

“The purpose of charging late fees is to encourage borrowers to return books in a timely manner so that others may read these same books,” said Linda Clarke, the system’s director. “We waived fines because initially we were not checking out anything, so we did not need them returned.”

Even after libraries opened for curbside service on June 22, new coronavirus policies made it difficult to ascertain and enforce a book’s returned date.

“We began quarantining books for several days,” Clarke said, “and we would not have the space to do this if all the books were brought back at the same time.”

After sequestering books for at least 96 hours, library staff disinfect and return them to shelves.

The decision to waive late fees was made also to acknowledge the financial toll many have borne in recent months.

“The pandemic has contributed to severe economic problems,” Clarke said. “The library did not want to further burden library users with late fees during this very stressful time period.”

For individual book borrowers, however, late fees cost next to nothing. The daily rate for most books comes to just 20 cents with a maximum fine of $5 (the equivalent of 25 days overdue). The county library system, on the other hand, stands to lose upwards of $20,000 in annual revenue. Coronavirus measures are not entirely to blame, though.

The library system has been losing income from fines since before the pandemic began. In the fall of 2019, Chatham County Public Libraries launched Chatham PASS (Public Library Access for Student Success) in partnership with Chatham County Schools. PASS “is a game changer for students,” former CCS Chief Information and Technology Officer Keith Medlin told the News + Record in September. But it means less revenue for the library.

Chatham PASS uses school ID numbers as library card numbers for all students in Chatham County Public Schools. An important feature of the program is that student accounts do not incur late fees. The library hoped to quantify the fiscal impact of the PASS program on libraries in its first year of existence, but the pandemic has immeasurably skewed data.

“We wanted to be able to track the change of revenue for the entire school year,” Clarke said. “Since schools closed except for online learning and libraries closed to the public in March, it is not representational of a normal period of time.”

Still, conservative estimates indicate a considerable loss in revenue from students, a demographic prone to returning books late.

The sacrificed money does not bother Clarke. Forfeiting overdue fees will hardly break Chatham County Public Libraries’ total budget, she said. More important than lost revenue is that Chatham County residents have convenient access to a vital public service.

Despite the proliferation of online information sources, libraries still serve an important function in the community. Especially in small towns and neighborhoods, libraries are an essential fixture. The Chatham County Public Library mission statement promises the institution will always serve as “an integral part of the community by encouraging reading, lifelong learning and community engagement, and by providing opportunities for people to connect, learn and grow.”

To fulfill its avowal, the library has embraced online operations. Several staff members, including Youth Services Librarian Katy Henderson and Branch Manager Rita Van Duinen, have spearheaded expansion into online services. These include online story times with Henderson and online bilingual craft activities with Library Assistant Juana Gomez.

“Some of the virtual content we should have probably been providing pre-COVID,” Van Duinen said. “Much of it we will continue to do post-COVID, whenever that is, especially programs like our bilingual Arts & Crafts.” Gomez’s crafts program is livestreamed on Facebook and then posted to YouTube. Other virtual content is delivered via Zoom or GoToMeeting.

The programs have been met with overwhelming participation. Since March, there have been more than 500 new library card applications processed.

“The library has received only positive comments,” Clarke said. “One mom sent a wonderful thank you note telling us about her child who was shy but remembered parts of Katy’s story time and sang during the remainder of the day. He pointed to his computer screen and said, ‘Where’s Katy?’ Even during these difficult times, the library made a connection with this family.”

To Clarke, such experiences are what make the library irreplaceable: “It doesn’t get more impactful than that.”

To access Chatham County Public Libraries new online services or to apply for a library card, visit their website at www.chathamlibraries.org.

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