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Dickinson Area Public Library implements no-late fee policy

The Dickinson Area Public Library recently implemented a fine free program, eliminating the fees and penalties for late returns. More on the new program.

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Oliver Jasso-Buffalo, 4, props up on a chair at the Dickinson Area Public Library Thursday afternoon, with a dinosaur drawing book he's eager to dive into. Recently, the library has waived all late fees, allowing for more equity for its library users. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

If you check out a book now at the Dickinson Area Public Library, you’re still obligated to return the book but fees have been waived to allow for more equity to be present.

When Gov. Doug Burgum shut down businesses and establishments in the middle of March last year, the Dickinson Area Public Library had to reinvent itself to continue providing services to the public. Given the whirlwind circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Library Director Rita Ennen noted that it was such an unforeseen rollercoaster of events that warranted waiving late fees for the public.

In September, the library decided to reverse the system to its normal procedures where materials would be due back in a timely manner. Ennen then consulted the Dickinson Area Public Library Board about the fine free policies that were put in place by many other libraries in the state such as the North Dakota State Library, which has been fine free for several years. The group came to a conclusion that “some of the equity types of issues that were brought forward by other libraries made a lot of sense of,” she said.

“Fine free is something that has started in the library world, if you will, about two (or) three years ago, mostly in some of the really big libraries. And it is an equity sort of thing among other things. For us, it started here actually when we had to close for the (pandemic) in March… So then there were a lot of people that had all of the materials they had out and they were quarantining, etc.,” Ennen said. “Things went overdue, and we just decided then that we were going to waive fines and extend the due dates on materials so people were not penalized for something that wasn’t their fault and for a situation that none of us knew how it would resolve. So that’s kind of where it started.”

The original procedures are still in place if, for example, an individual fails to return their book and other materials long after the due date. The penalty for failing to return checked out materials includes replacement cost of the item(s) along with a $7 processing fee.

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“... The fact is that fines disproportionately affect people of lower income. It’s also a matter of it’s not that you can take materials and keep them forever now, it belongs to the library; it belongs to the community, right? It’s yours to use but you have to bring it back home,” Ennen remarked.

Books circulate for four weeks and people are able to renew them twice during their checkout period. If it’s a longer book that requires more extra time to complete, people are allowed to have two extensions prior to returning it back to the library. People are able to renew their materials online, through the library’s website or by an in-person visit where a front desk employee will be able to assist with that renewal process.

People will still receive an overdue reminder in the mail, just like before, if they don’t renew or return their materials on time. Following a few sent-out reminders, a bill will be sent through the mail. But as long as the book is returned within 12 weeks, the library will not impose any penalties.

“What we wanted to do is to take that person, who because they’ve had quarantined or whatever other circumstances might have happened in their life, where one or two days late was something we wanted to say life happens, free them from the embarrassment of that,” she said, adding, “and make it so you return your materials. That’s really our goal, that’s what we want — is to get things back so that somebody else can have the opportunity to use it as well. As long as you do that in a timely manner and make that happen, once in a while if you’re a day or two late, we don’t have to punish you or make an example of you over that.”

The no-fine policy addresses equity issues head on, Ennen said. Having the fee policy in place not only affects families and sometimes children whose parents are less involved, it overwhelms individuals who have “enormously stressful situations in life that for a period of time” in which more burdens affect their management, she added.

“What they find is that a quarter for some people or a dollar — which used to be our day late fee for a DVD — that’s not the same for everyone. Some people can say, ‘I’m not done with this book and I don’t care, I’ll pay the fee. I’ll keep it a couple extra weeks.’ It’s no big deal to them. For somebody else, that quarter or dollar is a very big deal and it accumulates really quickly,” Ennen said, explaining, “We’re not here to try to add to that burden; it is our hope in that making books and materials available to the public that we’re providing equity, that we’re saying, ‘Whether you can afford going to the bookstore or not, should not impact whether you have a story to read to your child.’ So we’re trying to take away unnecessary burdens without giving away the accountability effect.”

The library first began offering to the public the choice of curbside pick-up and mail-delivery. On June 1, the public was then allowed to visit the library by an appointment-basis only. In July, the library opened fully in limited hours. Programming has continued through virtual means through the library’s Facebook page.

The Dickinson Area Public Library hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and doors are closed Sunday. For more information, call the library at 701-456-7700 or visit dickinsonlibrary.org.

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Related Topics: DICKINSON
Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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