For the second year in a row the Long Beach City Council is hoping that an “amnesty” program—a month-long forgiveness period of fines— for those who have incurred late fees for overdue items will result in a large recovery of city property.
Last year’s program, held in April in coordination with National Library Month, saw over 4,000 library patrons return 10,103 items to the Long Beach Public Library system. The estimated value of those returned books was nearly $182,000. Additionally, over 3,200 of those items, believed to be lost, were returned with an estimated value of nearly $58,000 according to city figures.
Susan Jones, manager of Main Library Services, said that while the library did waive about $71,000 in fines during last year’s event, the value of items that were returned not only benefitted the city financially, but benefitted library users as those items were put back on the shelves.
“It was such a great financial benefit for the city and for the library to get these materials back and get them back into circulation that it far outweighed the actual dollar amount of the fines that were waived,” Jones said.
This year’s amnesty program will run through the month of April as it did in 2016. During that month people with outstanding items will have their fees waived and their accounts reinstated to good standing. For those who have already turned in items, but still have fines, the library is offering a clean slate in exchange for book donations, mirroring an effort from last April.
The current rate at which overdue item fees are assessed ranges from 15 cents per day for youth items to 35 cents per day for adult and young adult items. Once they reach the cap for fines, which is $5.60, their outstanding amount is converted to the replacement cost of the item.
Given that many, if not the majority, of public library users are children, pursuing the collection of fees could prove to be a fruitless venture. It could also prevent those materials for other youth to check out in the future. Currently, about one-third of fees owed are owed by youth 17 years old or younger.
Long Beach Public Library Foundation Communications Manager Molly Lewis said that the program makes sense because a lot of those items would not be returned to the system anyway, meaning the library would lose out on both fines and the overdue materials.
She noted that last year’s provision that allowed for some fines to be erased if the person donated a new book to the library’s collection added nearly 3,000 additions to the library.
“It doesn’t just recover, it actually increases the library’s catalogue which is fantastic,” Lewis said.
Claudia Espinoza participated in the amnesty program last year and characterized it in one word: awesome.
"I owed like $32 in late fees mostly when my husband checks out book with the kids he forgets due dates, until I randomly find library books around my home," Espinoza wrote in an email. "I donated three new books and my late fees disappeared. So awesome!"
The library logged over 1.2 million checkouts during 2016 but not all of those items have found their way back to the branches from which they left. Currently, the city’s libraries are missing over 16,700 items that are not available for circulation. In dollars and cents, that figure represents about $284,000 in potentially lost resources.
The library did not track how many people who participated in last year’s program returned to being regular users of the library, but Jones and city staff are hopeful that this year’s program may yield similar results to last year’s in getting more library resources back in the system.
Still, some members of the Long Beach City Council warned Tuesday night that this might be the last chance for those with overdue items to return them without having to pay their fines.
“I approach this with great caution because I don’t want to create a pattern where we do this every year so people just keep their books until that time and then obviously have their fines forgiven,” said Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, a cosponsor of the item.
Jones said that while there is a fear that the use of amnesty programs could discourage the timely return of items, that the exposure of people to the vast amount of resources and services available to those in good standing with the library will be the “hook” to keep people coming through the library’s doors and returning their items on time.
“That’s not a large concern for us, honestly,” Jones said. “Really what’s important to us and what we’re focused on is making sure that our patrons have accounts in good standing so they’re able to make use of all the resources that we have.”
[Editors note: The story has been updated to include a quote from a participant in last year's amnesty program.]