Advisory board chair also expresses reservations about how well new policy eliminating late-return fines will work over time
The chair of the Sarasota County Library Advisory Board has asked that county administration “craft guidelines for our staff and volunteers on the proper handling and storage of books.”
On Dec. 11, in presenting his board’s annual report, David Turner explained to the County Commission that the 10 members meet six times a year, and they schedule those sessions at different county libraries. That enables the board members to tour the facilities, Turner said.
As a result of those outings, he continued, the board members have seen that the level of care and maintenance “does vary” from library to library.
A bit of information the board members recently learned has underscored their concern about keeping “our valuable collection in good circulating condition as long as possible,” he added.
That information, Turner explained, is that “digital resources are more expensive than a printed book. … We don’t really own [digital books]. We merely lease or license [them] per use.”
The license or lease, he added, is pegged to a specific number of downloads or to a time period.
Unless the county renews the license or pays again, Turner said, “The book disappears from our collection.” Thus, he pointed out, digital resources have to be bought “over and over and over again.”
On the other hand, he noted, physical items owned by the county’s libraries “can circulate for decades.”
At the outset of his presentation, Turner talked about two important actions the commission took last year in regard to the library system.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis added that those libraries will begin Sunday hours on Jan. 26.
“We’re really delighted about that,” Turner told the commissioners.
Chair Charles Hines asked Lewis to have Renee Di Pilato, director of the Libraries and Historical Resources Department, provide the commission an update after, perhaps, six months, so the commissioners can see how many people are making use of those new hours.
Sunday hours, Turner told the commissioners, “was at the top of our list. This was the most common thing that the public requested when we [conducted] forums.”
Another request Turner made of the commission on Dec. 11 was to allow fines paid by library patrons to go into the budget for the Libraries and Historical Resources Department. Often, when someone pays a fine for having lost a book, Turner noted, “The book is not replaced.”
If the library has to use money already budgeted for new books to replace one that was lost, he said, “It creates a lose-lose situation.”
“To me,” Turner added, “it’s just common sense” that the libraries get to use the fee revenue instead of the money’s going into the county’s General Fund. (The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue; it covers the operating expenses of many county departments, as well as those of offices of county constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.)
The advisory board will begin holding public forums in February, Turner continued, so patrons can meet the new libraries director, Di Pilato, who joined the county staff earlier this year. Additionally, he said, the board members want to hear from the public about the County Commission’s vote in early September to eliminate fines.
Di Pilato and long-time Libraries Director Sarabeth Kalajian — whose retirement plans this year led to Di Pilato’s hiring — explained to the commissioners on Aug. 28 that studies have shown that the imposition of fines becomes a barrier to users, “including the most vulnerable in the community for whom library resources are essential to conducting everyday transactions,” as an Aug. 28 staff memo explained the reasoning.
The memo pointed out, “In recent years, the effectiveness of late-return fines to motivate the timely return of library materials has been challenged by studies that conclude a more effective practice to [prompt] the return of library materials is to stop charging late-return fines [altogether]. Studies indicate that even modest monetary penalties often result in people deciding to stop using the library, or not to register for a library account at all, because of the risk of paying late-return fines. Furthermore,” the memo said, “late-return fines have been shown to act as an inequitable barrier to service, disproportionately impacting minors, students, and community members with limited financial resources.”
Based on information he has obtained, Turner told the commissioners, “The policy … is a recent experiment by a small number of public libraries.” Over time, he continued, it has produced mixed results, “I think it’s fair to say.”
Although the policy has positive facets, Turner noted, “There are also negatives, such as books will come back later and patrons will have to wait longer to read popular books.”
Some libraries “have declared [the policy] a failure,” Turner pointed out. “We are eager to hear what the ordinary patrons think about these issues.”
Turner also reminded the commissioners that neither the public nor the Library Advisory Board was involved in the drafting of the new policy that eliminated the late-return fines.
Thus, he said, it is “long overdue — pardon the pun” to hear from the public.
Commissioner Alan Maio told Turner that he recently sent Di Pilato a copy of an article about the fines and fees issue in another jurisdiction, “which had an insane number of people who were avoiding the libraries … because of this problem [of fines].”
Yet, libraries were the only places those people could access a computer or find other important resources, Maio added.
That jurisdiction considered the new policy “a very big success,” Maio said. “Ours is at the very beginning. There are people who think that we’re crazy for having done that …” Yet, that article proved to him the value of the policy, Maio told Turner.
“Generally, the problems show up down the road,” Turner responded, “three or four or five years [later].”
He has been calling staff members of libraries in other areas where the policy has been implemented, Turner continued, to ask what they are seeing. “They find that the patterns of return tend to reflect the pattern of return before the change.”
A few facts and figures
The written report the Library Advisory Board provided the County Commission ahead of the Dec. 11 meeting noted that the county’s library system “is well appreciated by county residents. The numbers are impressive.”
The report said that 78% of county residents have a library card. “In just one year, we circulate nearly three million items [and] have two million library visits to our ten branches …”
In the 2019 fiscal year, the report pointed out, a record 137,000 people attended one of the “numerous programs” provided by the libraries.
Among other facets of the report, it notes that the advisory board members over the past year discussed “changes to the circulation policy. Formerly patrons were allowed to have unlimited renewals.” Under the new policy, the report says, the renewals are capped to five three-week periods, “so the total [time] that an item can be loaned is now 18 weeks unless there is a request for the item.”
The number of items that can be checked out has remained the same, the report notes: The maximum number of books is 100.
One other statistic in the report — documented in the 2018 fiscal year — is that “nearly 10% of all items added to the collection” resulted from donations of books and media. Those items a library cannot use are sold through the Friends of that library’s bookstore, with the proceeds “spent on an improvement to the library.”
The report added, “This represent a sizeable savings for the library and allows us to maximize the improvement of the physical collection.”