Northwest Georgia library system continues fine-free program, citing its success

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Dalton resident Hannah Ashmore, left, reads a book with her daughter Amelia, 6, on Friday at the Dalton-Whitfield Public Library.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Dalton resident Hannah Ashmore, left, reads a book with her daughter Amelia, 6, on Friday at the Dalton-Whitfield Public Library.

After a two-year pilot program, the suspension of fines for returning library materials late will be continued at a library system in Northwest Georgia.

The decision was made at a collective meeting of the Northwest Georgia Regional Library System, which includes the Dalton-Whitfield County Public Library, Calhoun-Gordon County Public Library and the Chatsworth-Murray County Public Library. The system's board and three libraries boards voted unanimously to continue the program.

Darla Chambliss, director of the library system, described the reasoning behind the decision to continue the fine-free program in a written statement.

"We were one of the three pilot programs in the state, and our boards agreed that this pilot program is good for the libraries, but more importantly, good for users of the library," she said. "It removes a burden to the public and specifically to students in our area."

The release said the program only forgives late fees for library patrons, not fees for lost or damaged books. The program doesn't forgive library patrons who abuse the system or items checked out from other library systems.

In a follow up email, Chambliss said abuse of the program would mean keeping library materials as personal property and not returning library material in a reasonable amount of time.

"Our staff will limit the abusers checkout privileges as to protect the other borrowers who are continuing to follow the rules," she said.

Chambliss said she's been monitoring the program's data throughout the pilot program, and she sees no downsides to the program. The library system sees this program as an institutional gift to the community, which has removed barriers to information and increased circulation.

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The pilot program began in December 2021, the release said. The Coastal Plain and Piedmont Regional library systems also participated. The Georgia Public Library Service provided assistance and support for the program.

In 2019, Chattahoochee Valley Libraries was the first system in Georgia to go fine-free. Four other systems have adopted the program, Chambliss said.

Library system officials found the fine-free program led to a large increase in circulation, the release said. One library found a nearly 400% increase in the circulation of physical media from 2021 to 2022, when library visits were limited by the pandemic. From 2022 to 2023, circulation saw nearly a 50% increase at that same library.

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John Hutcheson, chair of the Northwest Georgia Regional Library System board, said in the release that board members felt the pilot program was successful and wanted to see it continued.

"I think this is good for the library and the patrons because anything that is a barrier to the library is something we need to get rid of," he said.

The library system collected nearly 100 surveys from library patrons about the fine-free program, the release said. Library patrons reported long drive times, illnesses and tight budgets were all reasons that kept them from returning books on time, but the fine-free program helped keep reading material available to them and their families.

Visit the library system's website for information on the fine-free program.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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