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Chicago Public Library to waive overdue fines in first amnesty program in decades

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Updated: August 6, 2012 4:56PM

Chicago Public Library patrons who’ve stayed away because of overdue materials they can’t afford to return — or are too embarrassed to surrender — will be welcomed back without consequence, thanks to a three-week amnesty program that’s the system’s first in 20 years.

From Aug. 20 through Sept. 7, fines for overdue books, CD’s, DVD’s and other materials will be waived, no matter how late they are.

“The last time we did it was 20 years ago. I don’t see us doing it in the near future. A blue moon probably happens more frequently than we’ll do this,” Library Commissioner Brian Bannon said Monday.

Since January 2011 alone, Chicago’s 79 public libraries are owed $1.4 million in unpaid fines on overdue materials valued at more than $2 million.

But, Bannon said some of the literary treasures the system hopes to recover have been sitting in people’s basements for a lot longer than that.

“We have stuff that’s been gone for 20 years or longer. It’s very common in libraries. Somebody checks something out. They may forget to return it. Then, they choose not to return it. The fines have accumulated so high, they figure, ‘I’ll just keep the materials,’” Bannon said Monday.

“A fine amnesty has two primary goals. One is to re-engage users we’ve lost who’ve accumulated fines they can’t pay. The second goal is to get the materials that are out.”

For the last two years, Chicago’s collection budget has hovered around $7.5 million. That’s down from $10 million in prior years.

“In a budget-constrained time when we have limited money to purchase new materials, this is a way to bring those materials back. You get best-sellers, CD’s, movies — stuff people really want to borrow again,” the commissioner said.

“For the small amount we end up waiving in fines we probably would never get back anyway, we get a significant value in materials coming back that we weren’t gonna see again.” Materials gone for a two or three years or longer come back and we can immediately add them to our collections.”

Ten years ago, a Chicago Public library clerk was charged with felony theft for allegedly pocketing $18,000 in fines over a five-month period — half of her annual salary — from the 6,000 daily patrons of the Harold Washington Library.

At the time, Chicago’s public libraries processed eight million items a year and charged patrons 10 cents a day for every overdue item. To pile up $18,000 over a five-month period, a clerk would literally have to be skimming off the top of almost every transaction, officials said then.

In 2010, Chicago doubled its library fines to 20 cents a day with a maximum fine of $10 per book and $20 for DVD’s, CD’s and other media. There are no plans to raise the fines, Bannon said.

“Many users are young kids in homes at or below poverty. We don’t want to put a kid or family in a position where they can’t use the library anymore,” he said.

The Chicago Public Library system absorbed 50 percent of the layoffs in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first budget. The library cuts were so great, they prompted the resignation in January of longtime Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey.

Last month, Emanuel announced that Chicago’s 76 branch libraries would re-open on Monday mornings this fall, thanks to the city’s decision to replace higher-paid librarians with 105 lower-paid library pages.

Instead of staffing library branches using a one-size-fits-all model, Bannon used circulation, foot traffic, technology use and reference needs to determine staffing for individual branches, reallocate staff and fill vacancies with a mix of full and part-time positions.

Thanks to the recession, Chicago Public Library usage has risen steadily — from 6.9 million check-out items in 2005 to 9.5 million in 2010 and 9.76 million last year.

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