Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
But good news: punishing the poorest kids for overdue books has fallen out of favor.
The San Jose Public Library is staring down $6.8 million in patrons' unpaid fines. Administrators have reacted to that staggering amount—which is significantly higher than those of the nearby San Francisco or Oakland systems—by cracking down, The New York Times reported this week. Patrons face a fee of $0.50 a day for each overdue book, and a $20 processing charge per lost item. Anyone who racks up debts higher than $10 loses check-out and computer privileges. Charges over $50 are automatically turned over to a debt collections agency.
Writes Times reporter Carol Pogash:
Adriana Leon, a mother of three, owes $30 for 15 books that she said she dropped off late on a Friday. She said the library incorrectly charged her for being three days late. Now, she no longer borrows books and is teaching her daughter not to borrow, either. “I try to explain to her: ‘Don’t take books out. It’s so expensive,’” she said.
[San Jose Director of Libraries Jill] Bourne has heard that before: Children tell her, “My mom won’t let me get a card because she doesn’t want fines.”
“That’s not what you want a public library to be,” she said.
At one branch, 65 percent of the library system’s cardholders are banned from using its computers. Though San Jose, in the middle of the Silicon Valley, is a famously chichi area, 40 percent of its residents are immigrants, and Mayor Samuel T. Liccardo tells of a persistent “digital divide.”
“The kids who are barred from the door of the library are the ones we most desperately want to reach,” he told the Times.
The story out of San Jose is sad, and one that Bourne, the head librarian, said she’s hoping give a more happy ending. She’s asked the system to reduce fines to $0.25 a day for children, and to rethink its use of collections agencies. Still, the California city seems to be bucking a nationwide trend, which since the recession has seen libraries move towards more creative policies of “fee amnesty.”
The strategy has been officially embraced by the American Library Association, which notes that it’s cheaper to “forego fines and simply get the books back” than it is to replace them. The group’s policy statement on providing library services to the poor promises to “[promote] the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”
And many libraries—even big libraries—are following suit. The Los Angeles Public Library offered two “fine forgiveness” weeks this February, during which it welcomed back undamaged overdue books, free of fines. (“Nothing can keep us apart. Not even late fees,” the library wrote in its Valentines Day-themed campaign materials.) During Chicago’s first amnesty weeks in 2012, 40,000 people re-registered their library cards, and the library waived $641,820 in fines for 101,301 overdue items, worth an estimated $2 million. (The Chicago Tribune reports that one returned item, a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, was a mere 78 years past its due date.) Chicago’s 2016 amnesty campaign was also held in February.
In Denver, the library system has completely nixed overdue fees for juvenile and young adult materials, though it officially declares materials more than 28 days overdue “lost,” and assesses a replacement fee. If the material does make it back to the library, however, all fees evaporate.
“A certain level of fines and fee structure is important to have people realize that these are important public materials, and that’s how libraries work in a democracy,” Richard Sosa, the finance director of the Denver system, told the Times in 2009. “But at the same time, we’re trying to figure out, when does a fee prohibit someone who’s on the brink economically from using our service? We’re cognizant of what we’re doing.”
Other cities have gotten a bit more creative. The Trenton Free Public Library offers a “food for fines” program at the end of the year, which deducts $1 in late fees per non-perishable food item donated. “Behind my circulation desk, I have boxes and boxes of food that people are stumbling over,” Kathy Pape, the executive director of the Conneaut Public Library in Conneaut, Ohio, said after a 2009 drive. “The response has been overwhelming.”
And in Queens, anyone under 21 can “read down” their fees, earning $1 back per every half hour spent reading in the library. Young people owe the library about $1.45 million in fines, the Queens Public Library communications director Joanne King told the Times. Still, “we’re very concerned about people not being able to use the library,” she said. The borough would rather have kids in the seats with books and access to computers than not.