Posted by: bluesyemre | May 28, 2018

The case against #LibraryFines according to the head of The New York Public Library


Technologists may create the future—but liberal-arts majors tell us how to think about it. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

There’s no doubt that we are currently living in a fractured world, one in which the divide between rich and poor is widening, opportunities for the disenfranchised are declining, and the lines between fact and fiction are increasingly blurred.

Public libraries are on the front lines every day, combatting these threats to our democracy. Whether loaning wi-fi hotspots to give patrons access to the internet and help close the digital divide, helping immigrants learn English, offering free citizenship classes, providing early literacy programs to close the reading gap, or simply loaning books (and, yes, people still read books—circulation at The New York Public Library went up 7% last year over the previous year), libraries ensure that no one—regardless of beliefs or background—faces barriers to learning, growing, and strengthening our communities.

It is because of this role, so crucial to our democracy of informed citizens, that I and many others at libraries across the country have been seriously evaluating the complex and long-standing issue of library fines – and whether to do away with them.

For many families across the US, library fines are a true barrier to access. While relatively small library fines have been a punchline in pop culture over the years (Jerry Seinfeld’s “library cop” is an icon, for example), the fact is that for many families across the US, library fines are a true barrier to access. At The New York Public Library, $15 in accrued fines prohibits one from checking out materials. The reason for this policy may be obvious—it’s incentive to get books returned and back on our shelves—but is it really effective? For those who can afford the fines, paying a small late fee is no problem, so the fines are not a particularly strong incentive. On the other hand, for those who can’t afford the fines, they have a disproportionately negative impact.

At our 125th Street Library in Harlem, for instance, a young mother tried to check out a wi-fi hotspot so her daughter could do her homework. Homeless, the family couldn’t afford broadband internet, and her daughter’s grades suffered. Unfortunately, her library card was blocked, not because the family was irresponsible, but because one night, they were abruptly moved from one shelter to another, and in their haste to leave, they left behind a library book and DVD. The fines accumulated quickly, and without any way to pay them, their only hope for internet access was no longer available.

Our branch managers have the authority to use their good judgment to waive fines, and in this case, that’s exactly what happened. But that piecemeal, personal approach isn’t a solution.

In October, The New York Public Library, along with the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library, took a step in the right direction, offering a one-time fine amnesty for kids and teens. All students got a fresh start, no questions asked, hopefully prompting them to return and use our array of free resources.

Kids rekindled their relationship with reading, learning, and libraries after we offered the amnesty. One month in, we saw successes. About 41,000 kids and teens, or 10% of those who previously had fines, used their library cards to access library resources. Of those 41,000, 11,000 had blocked cards or a lapsed relationship with the library, meaning they hadn’t used the library for at least a year. So we know 11,000 kids and teens have rekindled their relationship with reading, learning, and libraries one month after we offered the amnesty. We will continue to monitor this, as we expect numbers to continue to increase as we continue to get the word out about the program.

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