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Dane County libraries look to join growing fine free library trend

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Libraries across the country are seeing declining or stagnant circulation, but some believe a little leniency could change that.

Many have gone fine free, including a number of Dane County libraries and in 2020 two more could join.

Stoughton's library director, Jim Ramsey, said libraries have the same mission but their focus is shifting. They're now offering more materials to check out and looking for opportunities to encourage community gathering.

"To use information gained from a variety of sources, print and digital, to create new forms of knowledge," Ramsey said.

That's why he said when he hears some of the reasons people are avoiding the library, he believes, change may be overdue.

"We do hear people say they're afraid to check out too many books because they're afraid of accruing late fines," Ramsey said.

Though in Stoughton, those fines may soon be forgiven. The library board is considering eliminating the longstanding punishment for overdue books in the new year.

Madison is too.

Borrower services manager Margie Navarre Saaf said they consider it a matter of equity.

"It really has become a barrier to people who aren't able to pay their fines," she said.

In Madison those fines amount to $0.25 a day per book for adults and $1 a day if it's outside the South Central Library System. Children have been fine-free for 25 years.

Still Navarre Saaf said those fines can stack up quickly.

"Once you reach $20 in fines, you can no longer check out," she said.

Navarre Saaf said the most striking observation from last year's data showed those check out bans happened most frequently in Madison's low-income neighborhoods.

"If we are able to find a way to eliminate fines that can have an impact on different undeserved communities in Madison," she said.

Opponents of the plan bring up two concerns, the loss of the incentive to turn books in on time and a hit to the budget.

Other Dane County libraries attest dropping the fine hasn't changed their return rates dramatically.

Middleton has been fine free for decades. Its library director, Jocelyn Sansing, said few people remember ever paying a late fee there and patrons still return almost all of their materials within two weeks of the due date.

Verona has been fine free since 2018, and its director reported similar return rates.

As for the budget, Stoughton and Madison's leadership believe that could pose a bigger barrier.

Madison collects roughly $220,000 per year in library fines, about 1.14 percent of the operating budget.

Stoughton reports about $15,000 a year in fines, but that accounts for 1.75 percent of the library's operating budget.

Ramsey said the library board will look at ways they could replace that revenue in the next year.

"It's not an insurmountable obstacle to eliminating fines but we would have to find a way to make that up," Ramsey said.

Madison's library board plans to meet in April to discuss the whether it's feasible to continue efforts moving away from fines.

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Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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