Fines to disappear for Salem library users under new director

City librarian Kim Carroll in the stacks at the Salem Public Library on Friday, April 8 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As a kid, Kim Carroll spent afternoons at the library in Oregon City with her friends.

Carroll wasn’t an avid reader – that would come later. She enjoyed the library as a place to spend time until her parents got off work, but said she rarely checked out items.

“I had a library card and I was afraid to use it because I knew I had fines and I didn’t know how to pay those fines,” she said.

In late March, a Salem city committee selected Carroll, 52, as Salem’s next city librarian from among three finalists. She came to the city in April 2021 as the deputy city librarian and replaces Sarah Strahl, who left the job in October.

Carroll takes the helm seven months after the library moved back to its central Salem home following a seismic retrofit and redesign, and following over a year of curbside-only service during the pandemic.

Her early plans on the job include eliminating library fines, filling vacant staff positions in hopes of resuming longer pre-pandemic hours, and getting book lockers to allow people to pick up holds anytime, not just when the building is open.

Over time, Carroll wants the library to grow in its role as a community resource and do a better job letting people know they can access things like online GED courses, passes to local museums and events – not just books.

“Libraries in general struggle with getting the people that aren’t using the library to know what we have to offer,” she said. “And I think that’s because libraries have evolved so much.”

She also wants to better serve south and east Salem, both fast-growing areas which lack a branch library.

Carroll majored in English literature in college and discovered a love of reading there. She took her first library job at the Ledding Library of Milwaukie in the late 1990s and then worked in several other Oregon libraries as a teen librarian before moving to Maricopa, Arizona.

Currently, she’s working her way through the library’s Best Books of 2021, reading “Crying in H Mart,” a memoir by musician Michelle Zauner about reconnecting with her Korean identity following her mother’s cancer diagnosis.

Carroll said libraries are a critical part of the community, and her plans involve improving the efficiency of basic services like book check-in so staff have more time to focus on events and serving patrons.

A stairway to the teen and children’s level at the Salem Public Library shortly before its fall 2021 reopening. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Her desire to eliminate fines stems from her experience as a child, when she felt she couldn’t use the library because she owed money.

“We want to invite people back to the library and usually the people that can’t afford fines stop using the library,” she said.

Carroll most recently worked for Maricopa County Library District in Arizona, and said that getting rid of fines didn’t result in more patrons keeping books at home for long periods.

“We went fine free and we actually saw an increase in returns of long long overdue books that we thought would never get back,” she said. “It allows people to have a fresh start. I think there’s a lot of guilt associated with library fines for patrons.”

It’s a growing trend as libraries around the U.S. have eliminated fines in recent years, including Multnomah County in July 2020. Salem libraries stopped charging fines at the start of the pandemic because the library was closed.

Pre-pandemic, fines brought in about 2% of the library’s annual operating budget of $5 million per year, according to data Carroll provided.

But Carroll said collecting them isn’t cost effective. A study the library did earlier this year found Salem spends $5.92 in staff time, payment processing fees and mailing overdue notices to collect $5 worth of library fines. Conversations with patrons about fines, which can turn contentious, also wears on library employees’ mental health and occupies time they could better spend serving patrons in other ways.

Carroll said she expects to eliminate fines by the end of June. The change was approved by the city’s Library Advisory Board in February.

The library is moving ahead with a mobile outreach van, which Carroll expects to arrive in August. That will allow library employees to take books directly to areas of the city far from a branch.

The library is also “very close” to buying outdoor lockers for the main and West Salem branches, which would allow people to pick up their holds using a code anytime.

Carroll said she wants to try those out at existing branches first, but sees them as one way the library could expand its services.

The library also recently got a state grant to begin a “library of things” and is acquiring items like an electron microscope and metal detector that can be checked out. Cultural passes, which allow a patron access to the Gilbert House Children’s Museum and Hallie Ford Museum of Art, are another new addition she hopes to expand.

Salem’s library has 38 full-time and 10 part-time positions, several of which are vacant, Carroll said. Those include the deputy position she just vacated, and a new bilingual librarian position who will focus on Spanish-language outreach.

Once vacancies are filled, Carroll hopes to expand the library’s current operating hours, which are currently 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Before the pandemic, the library was open later on weeknights.

She’s also working with other library leaders on a strategic plan which should be completed this fall, setting short and longer-term goals based on community surveys and focus groups.

Correction: This article originally misstated the amount of revenue fines bring in to the Salem library. They have historically been about 2% of a total operating budget of $5 million. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!