SPL is going fine-free.
Seattle follows the lead of library systems in progressive bastions such as, um, Snohomish County and Salt Lake City. Kelly O

Because we all did such a good job voting to renew and increase the city's library levy last summer (it passed by 52 points!!), come Jan. 2 the Seattle Public Library will no longer fine patrons for returning overdue materials. They're also wiping out any debt users owe in overdue fees.

SPL hopes eliminating fines and canceling debt will welcome back an estimated 51,000 borrowers whose accounts have been blocked for failure to pay fees, says a spokesperson. That number represents 20% of all library accounts, according to a July analysis from the Seattle Times.

Branches in less affluent neighborhoods currently have twice the share of blocked accounts compared to branches in wealthier neighborhoods, despite the fact that rates of returns in both kinds of neighborhoods are similar. The new policy will therefore end the inequitable impact of fines, and return library access to a significant number of poor people who were barred from checking out materials because they goofed and then didn't have the money or the inclination to pay up.

Of course, we'll be eliminating fines for some rich people, too, an unconscionable act for the Pete Buttigeiges and Hillary Clintons of the world. The library could have considered some kind of means-tested approach—eliminating fines only for low-income patrons, say—but they didn't. "[That] option would have been very difficult to administer, considering we don’t collect financial information from patrons," the spokesperson said.

The universal approach also has the added benefit of streamlining operations. Circulation staff can spend their time on more important stuff, such as finding that book with a blue cover by that one author whose last name starts with "T,"—or was it "D"??—and less time having uncomfortable conversations about how much money the patron owes the library.

Plus, the library wasn't raising a ton of money from fines. In 2018, SPL collected $1.2 million in fines, which accounted for about 1.5% of their operating budget that year. Moreover, fine revenues have been declining "for several years" due to the growing popularity of electronic materials, which don't incur fines, according to the spokesperson.

Looking back at the last three years, the average overdue fine was just over $7 per patron. The largest fine cleared during that same period will be $400. Since a user may only check out a maximum of 50 items, and since there's currently an $8 maximum overdue fine, that $400 is the maximum overdue fine amount that will be wiped out.

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Fine forgiveness programs in similar cities, such as San Francisco, paved the way for people to return hundreds of thousands of overdue items, restoring the library's collection and bringing many borrowers back into the fold. The Seattle Public Library is banking on similar results.

It's also worth noting that the library levy doesn't only provide money to scrap past and future fines. Thanks to the new funds, all library branches will stay open later; the number of available physical and digital materials will increase; the Columbia City, Green Lake, and University branches will undergo massive renovations; more money will be spent on children's programs, and more social workers will be hired to engage with the homeless population.

These improvements and investments will likely lead to a smarter, more connected city, which is one of many reasons to raise a glass tonight.

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