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St. Louis County Library drops fines for kids’ materials

St. Louis County Library

Uh-oh. You just found a long-overdue library copy of “Hop on Pop” wedged deep under your child’s bed, and you don’t relish the thought of paying as much in fines as it would have cost to buy the book in the first place.

If the book was checked out from the St. Louis County Library, you can relax. As of New Year’s Day, the library has decided that children’s books, CDs and DVDs are exempt from overdue fines.

Library Director Kristen Sorth says the new policy – which has its limits – is designed to remove what often becomes an unwelcome deterrent to having children use the library.

“We are always looking for ways to remove barriers to access to library materials and services, particularly for children,” Sorth said. “When we were brainstorming about how we could do this, we looked at some statistics and found that 19 percent of our juvenile cardholders are blocked from using the library due to overdue fines. That’s a lot.”

Sorth said the library isn’t going to just sit back and ignore materials that are kept out past their due date.

“Overdue notices would still be issued for juvenile materials to alert the borrowers that they still need to return the items,” she said “So it's not as if someone can never bring back a book. There are still efforts in place to make sure that those books come back.”

Sorth said the new policy is expected to cost the library system $88,000 a year; annual revenue from fines is $700,000.

The new policy began on Jan. 1 and does not cover fines that accrued before that time. It applies to materials classified as being for children, up to the age of 12. Last year, more than 4.4 million juvenile items were checked out of the library system, about one-third of the total for all items.

Patrons will still be charged for children’s items that are not returned after 45 days and are considered lost, and blocks will be placed on cards when the total for such items reaches $15.

Sorth said the problem with fines on overdue materials can be particularly acute with children’s books, because of their size and the number of them that are checked out at one time.

“In general,” she said, “children's materials are checked out in very large quantities by families. If there are multiple children in the family, they may check out a huge amount of books because they're smaller books with less pages, so they could check out lots of pictures books and things like that. I just think sometimes things get lost and fines add up.”

Sorth noted that the subject of fines is being reviewed at libraries all across the country. Some systems have done away with fines altogether; others let patrons “read down” their fines or reduce them by bringing in cans to be given to food pantries.

St. Louis County Library Director Kristen Sorth
Credit St. Louis County Library
St. Louis County Library Director Kristen Sorth

At the St. Louis Public Library, spokesman John Koniak said children up to the age of 6 can get what is called “My 1st Library Card” which carries no overdue fines. He said the system held its first fine amnesty last month to mark the library’s 150th anniversary.

Asked if groups besides children may be in line for the same kind of fine forgiveness, Sorth said:
“We don’t have any other plans to extend it to any other groups. Part of our strategic plan is focused on literacy and on children, and our desire was to remove barriers that children face when accessing the library.”

Any county library patrons seeking to return or check out materials need to be aware of the latest round of closings as the system continues to renovate its facilities.

The Samuel C. Sachs branch closed on Dec. 12, and closures this month include Oak Bend on Jan. 9; Natural Bridge on Jan 16; Prairie Commons on Jan. 23; and Cliff Cave on Jan. 30. More information on the renovations can be found here.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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