May 8, 2017

New York’s librarians are working to keep kids reading, even when they can’t afford to pay their fines


New York’s librarians want kids to read, even if they can’t always afford the fines.

One in five children in New York City have library cards that they cannot use because of late fines. According to Jim Dwyer at the New York Times, the excellent humans at the New York Public Library think that is too high of a cost, and are actively looking for ways to alleviate fines for children who can’t afford to pay them.

Just as adults discover they cannot renew their driving licenses if they have too many unpaid tickets, children discover that they lose library privileges if they rack up more than $15 in late fees. The library is the Department of Motor Vehicles on training wheels.

A recent tally found that library cards were blocked for more than 225,000 young people in the city.

That means around one in five city children with library cards cannot use them.

The social cost has become too steep, says Anthony W. Marx, president of the New York Public Library, the largest system.

Marx has “sought private funding for a $10 million endowment that would create fine-free borrowing in perpetuity.” Other leaders of the city library system have expressed concern with the number of children blocked from borrowing, and while they’re not ready to go quite as far as Marx, are finding ways to waive fines.

[Linda E. Johnson of the Brooklyn Library system] said: “You don’t want to reward bad behavior, and on the other hand, we want to make sure the people who need them the most are not blocked out.”

In Queens, young scofflaws can “read down” their fines by committing to reading a certain number of books. “We waived $160,000 in fees this year,” Nick H. Buron, the borough’s chief librarian, said.

Branch managers can waive fees case by case—“That happens more often that we would like,” Ms. Johnson said—and in 2011, there was a citywide book-fine amnesty, instigated by Mr. Marx.

Anticipating the retorts, and the complaints that fines help keep the libraries afloat, Dwyer points out that many users can, in fact, afford them, adding:

No one is suggesting that people—including children—should not be held responsible for bringing books back.

“People talk about the moral hazard,” Mr. Marx said. “But there’s also a moral hazard in teaching poor kids that they will lose privileges to read, and that kids who can afford fines will not.”

Marx points out that “more people use the city’s libraries annually than the combined attendance of professional sports events, museums, performing arts and zoos,” and cites the “moral upside of sharing”; he includes in that the laptops they make available to their branch users, which are very rarely stolen. In the end, he offers a sadly quaint rationale for not blocking the access of low income users.

“People respect us,” Mr. Marx said, “because we are respecting them.”

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.