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More on Library Fees and Fines

ALA Policy 61—Library Services for the Poor was adopted in 1990. It promotes, among other things, “the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”

This spring, The Christian Science Monitor published an article titled “Is the Lifting of Library Fines Long Overdue?”. Writer Marilyn Gardner observes,

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.

Librarian.net’s Jessamyn West and readers of her site share anecdotes that illustrate the variety of issues at stake, not least of which is a patron’s ability to pay fines. West writes,

I did outreach for a public library and found that, almost without exception, the teens I met who did not come to the library stayed away because they believed they had huge fines and were, in some way, no longer welcome. Our library fines were steep—twenty cents per day for books with no grace period, one dollar per day for DVDs and videos—and once you hit five dollars you could no longer check out materials or use the library computers …

Members of the PUBLIB list have been discussing these matters of late, with a particular interest in how fees and fines—and the language used to describe them—impact a library’s public image.

Bill Crowley, a library-science professor at Dominican University, made explicit his concerns about low-income patrons in a post titled “Fines, Counterproductive Service, and Problematic PR.” His post is reprinted here with permission:

The cheerful march to raise fines may be well received in wealthy communities but have any of the libraries involved actually studied the potential impact on discouraging use by those on, near, or below the poverty line?

Before continuing the discussion I would suggest going to [www.laurabushfoundation.org] (which hosts the presentations from Laura Bush’s White House Conference on School Libraries) and clicking to “The Role of School Libraries in Elementary and Secondary Education” [PDF] by Dr. Susan Neuman (former) Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education United States Department of Education.

Do not let the title fool you. The presentation is actually devoted to comparing public library use by children in Philadelphia’s middle class and poor neighborhoods. The account of how the fear of fines and lost book charges affects borrowing in poor neighborhoods is discouraging. In-building use seems to be unaffected.

So, before one happily raises fines outside of wealthy communities, one might want to consider how poor kids or adults can “work off” the fines and keep both their self-respect and ability to borrow library books.

Here, I should note that prior to teaching in a graduate program I had 23 years of real life experience in public, state, and cooperative libraries, including stints in public relations.

Susan Neuman’s brief (six-page) paper, which Crowley cites, provides research findings that no doubt apply to many other cities—evidence that should prompt improved service to low-income populations.

Despite similarities in budget allocations, there were striking differences in the quality of school libraries in schools across [Philadelphia]. Children in poor areas had mediocre to poor libraries, no librarian on site; further the libraries were often closed during the week, compared to those in middle-class schools in the same city … School library funds were designated as discretionary to be used for computers if the instructional leader chose to do so. Thus, many of these schools in poor areas had no libraries, but computer labs, often empty of anything but the technology itself.

Finally, Martina Kominiarek at Bucks County (Penn.) Free Library contributed an equally well-informed PUBLIB post on fines, which you can read here.

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