Overdue and underfunded

Overdue and underfunded

North Smithfield Library Director Sue Dubois, left, checks out books for Kelsey Carpenter, of North Smithfield, who just heard about auto-renewal and has not had the opportunity to use it yet, but looks forward to using it in the future. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)
State’s new automatic renewal system a win for some libraries, but others forced to pay up

It’s a familiar situation for most library patrons: You walk up to the counter with a book or DVD in hand only to find out you owe money on past overdue materials. The amount is usually small, typically only a few dollars.

Thanks to a new automatic renewal system that went into effect last December, that situation is becoming less and less frequent at libraries across the state. Overdue books and other materials eligible for renewal now automatically renew as they approach their due date, bringing relief to patrons whose forgetfulness previously resulted in fines.

The new system has streamlined the renewal process and led to better customer service, but it’s also caused a steep drop in revenue collections for libraries that previously charged fines for all overdue materials. For most libraries, it’s a small price to pay for the convenience, but some, most of them located within the state’s urban core, are raising concerns as the new policy slashes funds they once depended on to buy new books and other materials.

Susan Reed is the director of the Pawtucket Public Library, where the amount collected in fines has been cut nearly in half from about $45,000 in the 2017-2018 fiscal year to $23,000 in 2018-2019. It’s a significant decline in a community where the annual city budget only covers a portion of the cost of new materials, with the library forced to make up the rest with revenue collected on overdue books.

“A lot of it goes to buying DVDs and print material for children and adults,” she said. “We don’t have enough from the city, so the money we get from fines is helpful.”

While the automatic renewals are not the only culprit behind the declining revenue – fines, she said, have been down since the network started sending out reminder notifications several years ago – it’s the latest change in a system that increasingly favors patrons over cash-strapped libraries trying to enforce late fines on materials.

In North Smithfield, Library Director Sue Dubois said she expects to collect about a third less in fines this year due to the automatic renewal system and other factors, but she’s not worried about the impact on the library’s materials budget. The budget, she said, comes from a combination of state aid and town funding with fundraising for some specific items conducted during the year.

“I was never comfortable with fines to begin with,” she said. “A lot of times it’s used as incentive to bring things back which definitely helps, but to count on money based on people’s behavior is probably not the way to go for budgeting purposes.”

Dubois serves as treasurer of the board of directors of Ocean State Libraries, the library consortium overseeing the interlibrary loan system in the state. Last November, consortium members took a vote as to whether or not the network should institute the new automatic renewal system as part of a software update. While a few members, including Pawtucket and Woonsocket, voted against the changes, the vast majority of members voted in favor, prompting a network-wide change that went into effect Dec. 10 of last year.

Overall, local library directors said the reaction has been positive as patrons have been able to focus less on fines and more on enjoying the library’s services. In Cumberland, where the library requested additional funds from the town this year to make up for a projected $5,000 revenue loss, Library Director Celeste Dyer said they’re trying to change the library’s image from a penny-pinching, silent one to a place where patrons feel comfortable.

“You just don’t want to keep having those same arguments about the quarter or the 10 cents,” she said. “We knew it was going to impact our fines, but we thought the goodwill it would generate would be better.”

The same is true in Greenville, where a $3,500 drop in revenue over the past fiscal year hasn’t stopped Library Director Dorothy Swain from seeing the new automatic renewal system as a win for patrons.

“Our mantra here is public services,” she said. “If it’s going to enhance that, then we’re all for it.”

In some other municipalities, penny-pinching might be the new normal if fine revenue continues to decline in the months ahead. In Pawtucket, Reed said she hasn’t made her new materials purchases yet for 2019. But those purchases are coming, and with a smaller pot of revenue to work with, the decisions on what to keep and what to cut are going to be a little bit tougher than they were last year.

According to Dubois, fine collections in North Smithfield had already been declining due to the decision of several of the state’s larger libraries, including the Warwick, Cranston, Providence Public and Providence Community Library systems, to stop collecting fines on some materials. Unlike the automatic renewal system, fine policies differ by community, and the library that owns the material determines the amount collected for a particular book. So a book returned late to a library that charges a late fine might not incur a penalty if it came by way of the interlibrary loan system from a library that does not.

“It’s always kind of a bone of contention at all our meetings,” Dubois said about the differing fine policies.

According to Warwick Library Director Chris LaRoux, Warwick made the decision to go fine-free on children and teen materials last summer after seeing how the system worked in Cranston. Though Warwick saw a slight drop in fine revenue, they also saw a corresponding rise in circulation as users who’d previously been blocked due to unpaid fines were once again able to take out materials.

“We looked at our stats, and it was pretty shocking,” he said. “There were, I believe, around 7,000 teens and children’s cards that were blocked in Warwick. That’s rather shocking because our goal, of course, was to instill a love of reading and get kids into reading at a younger age.”

The revenue decline continued as the automatic renewal system went into effect, but, due to the library’s budget arrangement with the city of Warwick, the situation didn’t create an immediate budget burden, LaRoux explained. The Warwick Public Library turns fines directly over to the city, so a drop in fine revenue doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in funding unless the city decides to implement a corresponding budget cut. For now, LaRoux said, the city hasn’t expressed any concern about the revenue decline, though he’s not sure how city officials would feel if the library decided to change its fine policies for adult materials as well as children’s.

Other communities, such as Lincoln, use a similar system for submitting fine revenue to the towns. Lincoln Public Library Director Becky Boragine said the library has seen a decline in fine revenue since last December, but since the amount does not determine their town funding, it hasn’t impacted their budget so far. In Woonsocket, however, the Harris Public Library has traditionally incorporated fine revenue into its budget, relying on fines collected to purchase new materials and pay a part-time security guard. According to Library Director Leslie Page, fine revenue has seen a near-steady decline since 2014, though it’s difficult to determine exactly how much of that is due to the latest policy change.

“It’s not through our fault that we’re depending so much on our fines and fees. It’s the financial status of our cities and towns,” she said.

For library patrons, the new automatic renewal system is an easily overlooked convenience. Many of those interviewed said they hadn’t noticed a change, but Joanne O’Connell, a resident of North Providence, said she was happy when it went into effect last year. O’Connell said she visits the North Providence Public Library at least once a week and also frequents others around the state, usually leaving with a stack of books or DVDs under her arm.

“Every now and then, you miss something to bring back, so I think it’s very generous of them,” she said during a visit to the North Providence Library.

In an age when the majority of interactions take place online, O’Connell added she thinks it’s important for libraries to continue to stay relevant in their users’ daily lives. She often uses the state’s online library network to check the status of her materials and thinks the automatic renewal feature makes things easier for patrons like her.

“I think the libraries have to make sure they stay relevant in the towns now,” she said. “This is just one more thing they can do to be more user-friendly.”

Rhode Island isn’t the only state moving toward an automatic renewal system. CW MARS, the library network that covers much of central Massachusetts, also instituted automatic renewal last month. Though it’s too early to tell the effects, library directors of neighboring Massachusetts towns offered different expectations depending on their previous fine policies. In Blackstone, Library Director Lisa Cheever said the town has already done away with library fines, while in Bellingham, Library Director Bernadette Rivard said any potential revenue loss would not affect the materials budget, which is mandated by state law. Instead, the change could affect part-time positions, which draw some funding from fine revenue.

Vera DeMarco, of Cumberland, browses the racks at the North Smithfield Public Library on Monday afternoon. She said she knew about the auto-renewal program and uses it and other library programs often. She said that the library probably loses money because of auto-renewal, but she still insists on voluntarily paying fines and considers it her donation to the library.
Nicole Manocchio, of Scituate, plays a board game with a friend at the North Smithfield library on Monday afternoon. She has heard of auto-renewal and thinks she used it once.