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Washington Voices

Patron fines hinder library

Thu., Feb. 3, 2011

Neighborhood groups consider how to bolster attendance

The East Side Library was on the list of Spokane Public Library branches threatened to close last year, partly because it has one of the lowest usage rates in the city.

One reason for the low attendance could be the 2,296 blocked library cards issued from that branch. A card is blocked if there is more than a $10 fine on it. A blocked cardholder’s child cannot be issued a library card, if they don’t already have one.

“That in itself keeps children out of the library,” said Jennifer Hansen, who works for Neighborhood Matters, a community development program run by the Spokane Regional Health District. Hansen has made it a priority to find a way for more children to get library cards at the East Side Library, so usage rates will go up and the library hopefully will stay open.

“There has got to be a way we can figure this out,” Hansen said.

The East Side Library, located at the East Central Community Center, is owed $27,568 in outstanding fines from library cardholders within the 99202 ZIP code – the main area covered by the branch.

A complete amnesty is not an option.

“If we forgive library fines the state auditor will see that as a gift of public funds, so we can’t just do that – no matter how much we’d like to do so,” said Pat Partovi, director of the Spokane Public Library. “But there is a committee working toward trying to figure something out.”

Partovi said Spokane Public Library may be able to legally forgive as much as half of the fines owed on any one card.

“The $27,568 was a snapshot on the day we ran the number for the fines,” Partovi said. “That number does not include lost materials.”

Among the blocked cardholders the median fine amount is $6, Partovi said.

At a recent South Perry Business and Neighborhood Association meeting, Hansen said the fine amounts may not seem large to many people, but to a low-income family they are a real obstacle.

She then asked if SPBNA would be interested in doing some fundraising to help pay off some of the fines, specifically to help children gain access to the library.

SPBNA supported that idea and Hansen said later that the Spokane Public Library issued a friendly challenge for Neighborhood Matters to raise $2,000.

“I hope we can reach that goal by working with neighborhood businesses in East Central,” Hansen said.

Any program offering amnesty or paying off fines would have to be carefully managed to assure that library customers don’t run up fines over and over again, Hansen said.

“I really hope there’s a way of doing this so more children can get access to the library,” Hansen said.

One idea is to issue cards that only work for books – not for CDs or DVDs – to children whose parents owe fines. Another idea is to make book drops available at neighborhood elementary schools.

“Volunteers would have to staff off-site book drops,” Hansen said.

Partovi is optimistic that the Spokane Public Library can work out partial amnesty.

“Our intention is to mitigate the amount owed; our plan at this point is to waive half the fine and then use donated money to pay the other half of the fine, up to $10 a card,” said Partovi. “But we want our materials back. We want people to turn their bedrooms upside down looking for it and to search under the seats of the car. It is a responsibility of every cardholder to bring the material back.”

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