Why The Poorest Children Can't Access Free Books

May 5th 2017

A simple lesson in childhood is learning the importance of turning in library books on time. Why? Because you’ll get in trouble if you don't.

This trouble comes in the form of little fees forked from an allowance or covered by a begrudging parent. Either way, library fees are a lesson in responsibility and accountability; if you don’t keep up your end of the book borrowing bargain, you'll face a small punishment.

However, for people with little to no disposable income, charges like libraries fees can become a problem—and they greatly impact children.

As the New York Times recently reported, libraries in the area collected $5.5 million in fines in 2015 based on their schedule of late fees. For context, the New York Public Library charges 25 cents a day for adults and 10 cents for children if a book is late. And for more advanced media like DVDs and video games? Three dollars a day for children and adults.

But fees aren't the only punishments. In New York City, the right to borrow books is suspended if a child's or adult’s fees reach $15 or more. As the Times reports, this system has led to approximately 225,000 children having their library cards blocked.

American Library Association President Julie Todaro sees systems with millions in late fees as anomalies that might have lurking problems.

“We have to ask what are we doing wrong," — American Library Association President Julie Todaro

In these situations, one has to wonder what is happening to enable such high numbers.

“We have to ask what are we doing wrong," Todaro shares with ATTN:. "How can we work with a community to basically get them back into the library...Our goal is to really make sure that the most vulnerable populations have access to the resources they need."

For example, Todaro stressed the practice of capping fees to ensure patrons can keep coming back. Beyond that, measures like amnesty programs are created to forgive fines to get materials back.

Where does money from fees go anyway?

"The reason why libraries charge fees is because we have limited resources," Todaro explains. "We need to find a way to keep materials circulating."

Given how underfunded libraries are in America, fee money is commonly used to cover basic services. For example, in 2013 the Brooklyn Public Library brought in $1.6 million in late fees, which was used for maintaining the collection of books and some repairs. Considering this particularly city requires millions of dollars in maintenance, the small sum gathered in fees is only a tiny help.

Nevertheless, some systems, like Colorado State Libraries, are encouraging branches to end late fees to encourage library participation.

Todaro does note that no fee structure is perfect and that the end goal is to maintain access and resources since libraries are vulnerable institutions themselves.

Library fees are a contested subject since they are a somewhat non-specific penalty.

It is estimated that only 14 percent of borrowed materials are returned late. According to “Library Journal,” fees are becoming unpopular since they demand too many staff hours tracking down books. Moreover, funds lost by sacrificing fees can be recovered by more profitable charges gathered from copy machines, printing, and library card replacement.

Abandoning library fees greatly benefits low income children as they help to reduce “book deserts,” areas where poor children’s populations are without access to reading materials.

Library Journal's Editorial Director Rebecca T. Miller explains quite simply how fines are antithetical to a library’s function: “Given the core principal defining the library as a place to be used freely, any policy that limits access should be questioned, or at least designed to be as forgiving and easy to work with as possible.”

Yet Todaro says the total abandonment of fees would put library administrators in a tough position. "If I'm responsible for appropriate stewardship of public money, having no checks and balances is difficult for parity. What happens is people are unhappy paying taxes—and taxes might go up."

Contrary to how it appears, there are measures to protect people in fragile financial situations from fees.

The Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy adopted by the American Library Association waives fees for the disabled. The Services And Responsibilities of Libraries’ Section B.8.10 ensures equal access to patrons regardless of income with a specific objective to remove “all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”

As Todaro says, equal access to the library is crucial today since libraries can be a gateway for one's economic future. "People use libraries to apply for food stamps, to apply for jobs," she says. "The majority of federal documents are only available online...We’re an economic motivator for some people."

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