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Is the lifting of library fines long overdue?

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Irina Freyman regularly patronizes several suburban libraries west of Boston. But her favorite is the red-brick Dover Town Library, in part because it offers an unusual advantage: no fines for overdue materials.

"It's not the money, it's just inconvenient to pay fines if I've left my purse in the car," says Ms. Freyman as she and her family head for the checkout desk on a Saturday afternoon. "They're also friendlier here."

Convenience and friendliness were two goals Dover librarians had in mind when they eliminated fines seven years ago. What they have lost in revenue - between $3,000 and $5,000 a year - they say they have gained in goodwill. "Young families borrow a great deal of items," says Kathy Killeen, director. "They've got a lot of pressure on them. If they're a week behind, they don't have to pull out their wallet. It just takes that onerous element of libraries out of our exchanges with people."

To fine or not to fine? As libraries face competition from the Internet, Amazon, and bookstores, some are looking for ways to be more customer-friendly. At the same time, book-lovers point to Netflix and Blockbuster, which have eliminated fines for overdue movie rentals, and suggest that libraries do the same.

Yet tight municipal budgets are making many libraries more dependent than ever on revenue from fines - so dependent that some even hire collection agencies. Defenders of library fines also note that Netflix can recoup losses through monthly fees and Blockbuster with "restocking" charges.

Killeen is quick to acknowledge that Dover's policy would not work everywhere. But for this pastoral town of 6,000, she says, it succeeds. "It takes an incredible amount of staff time to collect 50 cents, to monitor it, and send out notices. We weighed the actual costs of collecting fines against the revenue brought in and decided it was kind of a wash."

In Westford, Mass., Ellen Rainville, director of the no-fines J.V. Fletcher Library, calls fines "basically a negative, punitive transaction you have with patrons over and over." Far preferable, she says, are "positive transactions that don't have that whiff of the old ... judgmental and reproving environment that many people associate with their childhood library."

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