Mark Twain once described the public library as “the most enduring of memorials,” a free center of intellectual and educational power accessible to old and young alike. Libraries today are seeking to keep it that way, with many offering a reprieve to those who fail to return their books on time.
Last week, the Free Library of Philadelphia ended its policy of charging fines on overdue materials. It is one of several library systems, among them Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and San Diego, that have adopted a no-fee or amnesty policy in recent years.
In Philadelphia, lost or destroyed items need to be replaced before people can check out more books, said Siobhan A. Reardon, the director of the Free Library. However, in lieu of cash, the library also accepts “new or gently used copies” as replacements. Why? Libraries want the books and other materials back so other patrons can enjoy them, too.
“We watched other libraries go down this path with success,” Ms. Reardon said in an interview. The new policy, she added, encourages people to keep coming to the library without absolving violators of their responsibility. “You can’t get another book until you return the one you have,” she said.
Even as free information has proliferated online, libraries have remained essential fixtures of America’s small towns and city neighborhoods. “Libraries are the lifeblood of American communities and democratic culture,” said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of social science at New York University and the author of the 2018 book “Palaces for the People.” “One of the special things about libraries and librarians is that they dignify the people who walk in.”
The American Library Association urged its members a year ago to re-examine their policies on fines, which it said discouraged violators from accessing other services. Libraries are home to movie nights, free children’s activities, career training and literacy programs, and they offer computer access to patrons.
In October, the Chicago Public Library eliminated late fees, citing research that showed that young and low-income patrons were disproportionally affected by the fines. One in five suspended library cards belonged to children aged 14 and younger, the city said in a statement.
The Chicago system had previously instituted an amnesty program with success. In 2016, library users returned $800,000 in overdue library materials. And 15,000 people either were added as new patrons or had their library privileges reinstated, the city said.
Cities in California have been at the center of the shift. According to a 2019 report prepared by the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, overdue library fines disproportionately affected low-income and African-American patrons. “Locations serving low-income areas have higher average debt amounts and more blocked users,” the report said.
The report noted that 11.2 percent of adult cardholders who frequented the branch in Bayview, a historically black neighborhood, were blocked from using the library because they owed fines for overdue materials. The Bayview branch is one of San Francisco’s oldest; the original library opened in a storefront in 1927.
People with fines are reluctant to use other library services, the report warned. And fines have caused tension among librarians who would rather help patrons than police them. The San Francisco system eliminated overdue fines in September, nine months after the report was released, though library users were required to replace lost, damaged or unreturned materials.
For many, libraries are a safe haven. “When you walk in the door, you have access to our cultural heritage and people who ask, ‘How can I help you?’” said Mr. Klinenberg, the N.Y.U. professor. Some sociologists, he said, extol the virtue of diners and coffee shops as welcoming centers of everyday life. “But not everyone can enjoy $6 cups of coffee and the cafe culture that comes with it,” he said.
Critics warn, though, that eliminating fees means less revenue for libraries. And there is a question about whether patrons are being rewarded for flouting the rules. Linda Kerns, a civil litigation lawyer and a Philadelphia native, has suggested that the Free Library’s leniency was a bad precedent.
“My focus is more about the responsibility angle, not the fees,” she said in an interview. For one, Ms. Kerns said it was a “dangerous assumption” to say that lower-income library users can’t pay fines. Second, she said, penalties could be used to teach people, including children, to follow rules.
“In society there are fees and fines for not doing what you are supposed to do,” Ms. Kerns said. “I was and still am a library user. And a successful library depends on people being responsible.”
Mr. Klinenberg had a different view. A better way to create learning opportunities for people, he said, is to “let them into the library.”
“I think it’s an exciting thing,” he said of the new policies. “There are a lot of people who need a safe, warm place where they are treated with dignity and respect. We are short on that these days.”