When Marcellus “MT” Turner left his post as executive director and chief librarian at the Seattle Public Library in March to cross the country and become CEO of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, one piece of his legacy was yet to be determined. The Seattle Public Library had eliminated late fees in all of its locations on Jan. 2, 2020, but thanks to COVID-19 closures, it was hard to see concrete results of the new policy.
Now, Turner will get another chance to see for himself how eliminating fines affects library access in real time, as Charlotte Mecklenburg Library went fine-free on July 1, 2021, thanks to a $600,000 allocation in the recently implemented Mecklenburg County budget for fiscal year 2022.
As of July 1, all Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML) cardholders with outstanding late fines had their balances cleared and returned to $0.00. The policy is meant to break down barriers to a library’s educational resources, as late fines have a tendency to discourage cardholders from not only borrowing books but accessing services, programs and other CML offerings.
While Charlotte Mecklenburg Library will do away with its fine policy moving forward, it will continue to charge fees for InterLibrary Loan materials, non-resident library cards, photocopies, printing, meeting room rentals and lost items.
Though all 150,000 locked CML accounts will now be unlocked, accounts will still be locked back (minus the $.25-a-day fine) if a cardholder keeps a newly borrowed item 14 days past its due date. If the item passes 30 days overdue, the borrower is charged a replacement fee.
We recently talked with Turner about the new policy as well as his other priorities now that he’s taken on the lead role at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library during a transformative year for the organization.
Queen City Nerve: How does the new fine-free policy work here at Charlotte Mecklenburg Library?
Marcellus Turner: What it means is that a person who actually has an account with a blocked access on it [due to late fines] of $10 or more … we will give them a clean slate. We will wipe their fines and fees off their record and they are just like a spanking brand new person walking in the door and getting a new library card, and it gives them access and privileges to everything that we have in our libraries.
And if they have any materials that they had out and were afraid to return — sliding around in the trunk of their car, wherever — just return those to us. We do want the materials back. It’s that simple. It’s not anything convoluted or anything.
You weren’t here during the time staff was lobbying the county for this, but can you speak to why it’s important to CML as an organization?
There’s a little bit of history from the profession itself, and then I’ll speak to what happened here in Charlotte. The profession itself has always wrestled with the idea of how do you eliminate barriers to access? Over the past four to five years that has gained more traction amongst the libraries in the world and the country, and they determined that to do that — to eliminate barriers — is to eliminate the fine process that is attached to using the library or checking out materials.
Charlotte Mecklenburg itself was seeing the same thing and recognizing that [we were] prohibiting access to materials and resources for our users by the implementation of a fine on overdue materials.
What kind of research went into deciding this was the best way to eliminate those barriers?
Every day our staff meets someone who is trying to use the library and recognizes they have a fine, and we try to work with them on it, and we have those same experiences and stories that aren’t numerical data but our proven instances of where this occurs.
From the research perspective, we were able to pull our records and note that we were seeing an increase in fines that resulted in blocked accounts of about 40,000 people for the last three years who fell into that group of having their transactions blocked because of a fine. So we were able to see that in our own records.
Why the increase?
What we have seen is two things with regards to fines. One, more and more people are facing financial challenges which require them to use resources like libraries and that type of thing, and as a result, sometimes their financial situations do not improve to the point where they can buy materials or have access otherwise, so they are checking out materials.
The second thing is you see more people who are unable to pay these fines, so I would have to believe that that probably occurred here in Charlotte but I don’t have that definitively in front of me.
You were a large part of the process in Seattle, however. Were you able to see results there before coming to Charlotte?
We were certainly receiving comments from the general public about how happy they were to have fines waived. Teachers were telling us that their students were sometimes unable to use libraries, so we were getting the stories from there.
We did also start seeing more people returning materials once they had their fines cleared off their records. The pandemic did delay that because we didn’t have people coming to the libraries and we didn’t have all of our book drops open, so people were unable to just clear them by walking into the library.
You mentioned hearing a lot from teachers. How important is this new policy in the way of childhood literacy?
It’s not just the teachers. There’s a three-pronged approach to who has access to our materials and information: Teachers hear about it, in working with the kids, and the kids know their record is blocked, and sometimes the parents and caregivers know their record is blocked. So doing this allows all three of them to know that they have access to these materials, which then allows them to promote reading, to encourage reading, and hopefully have our kids reading again.
What are some other priorities for you now that Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has implemented this and put it behind them?
My priorities are those that most CEOs would have when facing a fresh start. I am not from Charlotte, so one of the goals is to get to know Charlotte. The second is to visit all of our libraries and meet our staff and hear from them — take the time to listen and talk with them about what they are hoping for and wanting to see, talking about the pride that they have in this organization and then spending some time building off of that information to think about what are the opportunities that we want to pursue.
We always want to keep vibrant and new and refreshed collections for our public so we want to continue doing that. The second goal, maybe the first goal, is getting us back to a place of familiarity as we’re reopening and people are returning from the pandemic, that’s a principle goal.
We’re also in the process of working on a new Main library, so we want to be sure that we’re able to get that up and running. So all of those are going to keep me quite busy, just off the top of my head, but as you might imagine, I can wake up tomorrow and find something new, or further down the road I’ll uncover something else that we need to focus on.
You mentioned the new Main library branch in Uptown. Workers are currently preparing to demolish the existing one, with a new one scheduled to open sometime in 2025. What gets you most excited about that project?
Having lived in cities where new main libraries come into that city, it’s just amazing what they do for revitalization. It’s amazing how they address some of the social issues of the community, and it’s amazing how the pride sticks out amongst the public and officials about doing this, so I just want to acknowledge that there is that excitement that just comes with working in a city with a new library.
Secondarily, I think what’s going to excite all of us is the opportunity for more public engagement. We are focusing on being a public common for the community where we draw people together to engage and enjoy. We’re excited about a new space. The building has been here for some time and we know there are some beloved memories here but we want everyone to come in and create a new beloved space, with new things that they really like about it. We are carrying the Romare Bearden piece over to the new Main library, so I’m really excited about that, and there’s just lots of new opportunities here that are going to be really great for us.
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