Now Library Fines are a Social Injustice

Mayor Levar Stoney (left) and Library Director Scott Firestine

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond Public Library has joined 200 other public libraries across the country in eliminating the charging of fines for overdue books. Why? Because, in the words of City of Richmond press release, the fines, which make up less than 1% of the library’s total budget, “disproportionately affected low-income, African American and Hispanic communities.”

By eliminating fines, the city hopes that “residents of all backgrounds will feel more comfortable and welcome” to use library resources. Says Mayor Levar Stoney: “A welcoming library … provides a gateway to the world of learning and opportunity for personal progress. Ending fines … will alleviate the burden on our most vulnerable Richmonders.”

Added Richmond Public Library Director Scott Firestine: “Our library has removed a punitive, inefficient and misguided practice that was a barrier blocking our most vulnerable users. This is a giant step forward to inform, enrich and empower.”

Needless to say, my initial reaction to this idea was not a positive one. Eliminating fines erodes personal responsibility. It sends a signal to poor people that larger society won’t hold them accountable for their actions. You’re poor? You get a free pass. At the same time, I do believe in following the facts. Arguments that aren’t certifiably insane actually can be made that the idea is a good one.

The RTD editorial page notes today that wiping out fees encourages patrons to return overdue books. Chicago libraries saw a 240% increase in returned materials within the first three weeks. The city’s library commissioner contended that there had been many families who “couldn’t afford to pay the fines and therefore couldn’t return the materials, so we just lost them as patrons altogether.”

Also, I note, the Richmond library system still will charge fees “for items that are damaged or are considered lost.”

I’m not sure how this will work out, though. If poor people are reluctant to return overdue books, won’t they be even less likely to return damaged books they have to pay for? As for “lost” books, how long does a book have to be overdue before it is deemed to be lost? What happens if the borrower doesn’t pay the lost-book fine? Does the library block him from taking out more books? What happens if cancellations disproportionately impact the poor and minorities? Do we spike that policy, too?

Maybe Richmond librarians know something about human nature that I don’t know. I tend to be cynical: Remove a sanction for doing something, and people will do more of it. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m always willing to stand corrected. I’m also a fan of experimentation. Try something different and see if it works. If it doesn’t, go back to what you were doing before.

I would have more faith in this initiative if I knew that the Richmond Library was keeping track of the data and was willing to change course if things don’t pan out as expected.


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Comments

60 responses to “Now Library Fines are a Social Injustice”

  1. Jim Loving Avatar
    Jim Loving

    There should be some other dis-incentive for keeping overdue books.

    How about freezing one’s ability to withdraw other books until all overdue books are returned (coupled with the no fines approach)?

    1. CREGUY Avatar

      I had the same thought, Mr. Loving. I could support this policy (considering Mr. Bacon’s assertion that it is only 1% of the library’s budget) if I knew that there was a corresponding policy which prohibited checking out books if one already has an overdue book checked out.

  2. Jim Loving Avatar
    Jim Loving

    There should be some other dis-incentive for keeping overdue books.

    How about freezing one’s ability to withdraw other books until all overdue books are returned (coupled with the no fines approach)?

    1. CREGUY Avatar

      I had the same thought, Mr. Loving. I could support this policy (considering Mr. Bacon’s assertion that it is only 1% of the library’s budget) if I knew that there was a corresponding policy which prohibited checking out books if one already has an overdue book checked out.

  3. warrenhollowbooks Avatar
    warrenhollowbooks

    “Our ______ has removed a punitive, inefficient and misguided practice that was a barrier blocking our most vulnerable users. This is a giant step forward to inform, enrich and empower.”

    Here’s an idea- how about the Commonwealth adopt that attitude toward taxes . . .

  4. warrenhollowbooks Avatar
    warrenhollowbooks

    “Our ______ has removed a punitive, inefficient and misguided practice that was a barrier blocking our most vulnerable users. This is a giant step forward to inform, enrich and empower.”

    Here’s an idea- how about the Commonwealth adopt that attitude toward taxes . . .

  5. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Up our way, they offer some various options of “forgiveness” if you return the books. Never heard it characterized in terms of demographics but if someone forgets to return a book and the fines mount up – then that becomes a disincentive to returning the book.

    The world is changing with regard to “books”. I do pickups for a Church Thrift Shop. All the time, we get boxes and boxes of books and very few people want them – including the library- they are awash in “donated” books. I hate to say so – but 90% of them go into the dumpster. No one wants them and they are heavy as heck so they cannot be shipped anywhere without huge costs.

    I think the meme ” we’re doing it to help the poor folks” is way, way overdone these days and actually counterproductive with regard to those who think people should be responsible – and I’m one of them.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Please make sure you don’t throw away any first editions of the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Conrad, Vonnegut, etc.

      In fact, if you run across any of them just give me a call. I’ll drive to wherever you are and pick them up.

      🙂

  6. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Up our way, they offer some various options of “forgiveness” if you return the books. Never heard it characterized in terms of demographics but if someone forgets to return a book and the fines mount up – then that becomes a disincentive to returning the book.

    The world is changing with regard to “books”. I do pickups for a Church Thrift Shop. All the time, we get boxes and boxes of books and very few people want them – including the library- they are awash in “donated” books. I hate to say so – but 90% of them go into the dumpster. No one wants them and they are heavy as heck so they cannot be shipped anywhere without huge costs.

    I think the meme ” we’re doing it to help the poor folks” is way, way overdone these days and actually counterproductive with regard to those who think people should be responsible – and I’m one of them.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Please make sure you don’t throw away any first editions of the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Conrad, Vonnegut, etc.

      In fact, if you run across any of them just give me a call. I’ll drive to wherever you are and pick them up.

      🙂

  7. warrenhollowbooks Avatar
    warrenhollowbooks

    “How to make a Statement about Library Fines Sound like the Emancipation Proclamation- Lesson 1”

    “Our library has removed a punitive, inefficient and misguided practice that was a barrier blocking our most vulnerable users. This is a giant step forward to inform, enrich and empower.”

  8. warrenhollowbooks Avatar
    warrenhollowbooks

    “How to make a Statement about Library Fines Sound like the Emancipation Proclamation- Lesson 1”

    “Our library has removed a punitive, inefficient and misguided practice that was a barrier blocking our most vulnerable users. This is a giant step forward to inform, enrich and empower.”

  9. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    The library world is being “disruptive” big time. Anyone with a tablet, kindle, etc, can , at many libraryies, download a wide array of books, magazines, and other published material.

    I’d take a small poll here in BR. When is the last time you actually checked out a physical book from a library?

    Some folks like to hold the physical thing and turn pages – but quite a few people now get the “written word” electronically.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      I am one of those people who like to hold the physical book in my hand and turn its pages, but it has probably been 5 years or more since I checked a book out of a library. When I see or hear about a book that interests me I tend to buy it rather than borrow it.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I checked one out a few weeks ago. It is now overdue!

      1. WayneS Avatar

        At least you won’t have to pay a fine…

      2. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        and THAT’s why I DON’T check out books! It never fails.. the “return date” is an unforgiving task master!

  10. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    The library world is being “disruptive” big time. Anyone with a tablet, kindle, etc, can , at many libraryies, download a wide array of books, magazines, and other published material.

    I’d take a small poll here in BR. When is the last time you actually checked out a physical book from a library?

    Some folks like to hold the physical thing and turn pages – but quite a few people now get the “written word” electronically.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I checked one out a few weeks ago. It is now overdue!

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        and THAT’s why I DON’T check out books! It never fails.. the “return date” is an unforgiving task master!

      2. WayneS Avatar

        At least you won’t have to pay a fine…

    2. WayneS Avatar

      I am one of those people who like to hold the physical book in my hand and turn its pages, but it has probably been 5 years or more since I checked a book out of a library. When I see or hear about a book that interests me I tend to buy it rather than borrow it.

  11. WayneS Avatar

    I would like to hear them explain, without coming across as racist, why library fines disproportionately affect low-income, African American and Hispanic communities – not “low-income” people, but the other two groups mentioned.

    “[Fill in the Blank] disproportionately affects low-income, African American and Hispanic communities” is like a mantra for some people. Sometimes I think they say it without even thinking about what it implies.

    It has become the “It’s for the CHILDREN” of the 21st century.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      The City of Richmond’s press release stating that,”Fines on overdue materials disproportionately affect low-income, African American and Hispanic communities” is an appallingly racist statement.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) famously said as recently as 2008:

      “My Dad taught us ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.’ I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I am as good as anybody, but no better.”

      Unfortunately the social justice warriors have all but killed that spirit in many kids, with their deeply harmful preference policies all over now, including at libraries as well as acceptance policies at colleges and universities that ruin the confidence and positive spirits of equality of most all kids accepted into colleges that they are not academically prepared for.

      This has been proven again and again to be the case from the most all selective universities from the elite on down. The reason is called the cascade effect. For when elite universities take large amounts of unprepared kids (which many do), this drains empty the pool of otherwise qualified kids that less selective schools can chose from. Thus, for example, under-qualified students accepted at Yale Law School will on average not perform as a lawyer nearly as well as he or she would have performed had he or she attended a less selective law school for which they were qualified. See 2012 book “Mismatched” by Stuart Taylor, et.al.

      And of course this rules applies to students of all races, and colors, but the rule disproportionately impacts black kids, since they, and those who admit them, and study with them, label those unqualified kids by their skin color given these rampant and often ruinous preference policies. Their devastating effects are plain to see, and fully documented, in our colleges and universities.

      Now, with identity politics out of control, kids of color are targeted as inferior to whites by public libraries at far younger ages.

      Hence we got this racist press release out of Richmond:

      “Fines on overdue materials disproportionately affect low-income, African American and Hispanic communities.”

  12. WayneS Avatar

    I would like to hear them explain, without coming across as racist, why library fines disproportionately affect low-income, African American and Hispanic communities – not “low-income” people, but the other two groups mentioned.

    “[Fill in the Blank] disproportionately affects low-income, African American and Hispanic communities” is like a mantra for some people. Sometimes I think they say it without even thinking about what it implies.

    It has become the “It’s for the CHILDREN” of the 21st century.

  13. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    I’m with Wayne on this… there are some folks among us who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer when it comes to these issues and when they blather -they rile up others…

  14. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    I’m with Wayne on this… there are some folks among us who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer when it comes to these issues and when they blather -they rile up others…

  15. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar
    johnrandolphofroanoke

    Libraries are in trouble. There is a huge generation gap in how we consume knowledge. The kids I have in class do not use a book unless you make them. I suppose libraries will adapt to some sort of digital/video consumption. Ohhh too bad for so many great books. Maybe in a generation books will make a comeback the way vinyl records have.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      There are still some library users around. My daughter depends a lot on the Fairfax County library system. She gets a lot material for her home schooling. She herself is a big reader and usually has several checked out at a time. My oldest grandson consumes books–it is not unusual for him to have 10-15 checked out at a time. In fact, he or she will often exceed the limit and use one of the other two kids’ cards.

  16. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar
    johnrandolphofroanoke

    Libraries are in trouble. There is a huge generation gap in how we consume knowledge. The kids I have in class do not use a book unless you make them. I suppose libraries will adapt to some sort of digital/video consumption. Ohhh too bad for so many great books. Maybe in a generation books will make a comeback the way vinyl records have.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      There are still some library users around. My daughter depends a lot on the Fairfax County library system. She gets a lot material for her home schooling. She herself is a big reader and usually has several checked out at a time. My oldest grandson consumes books–it is not unusual for him to have 10-15 checked out at a time. In fact, he or she will often exceed the limit and use one of the other two kids’ cards.

  17. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I agree with several other commenters. This is probably a good policy, but the city made too much of it, wrapping it in the mantle of helping minorities. It should be limited to being a policy of getting rid of anything that discourages folks from using libraries.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Exactly. Not everything is about race and “social justice”.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        and I AGREE with that sentiment WHEN it’s TRUE! 😉

  18. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I agree with several other commenters. This is probably a good policy, but the city made too much of it, wrapping it in the mantle of helping minorities. It should be limited to being a policy of getting rid of anything that discourages folks from using libraries.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Exactly. Not everything is about race and “social justice”.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        and I AGREE with that sentiment WHEN it’s TRUE! 😉

  19. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim, You are sounding more and more like a grumpy old man. Frankly, my local library system sucks. They have an impenetrable website and they give you only three weeks per book. Then they dun you $1.32 in fines. It’s ridiculous.

  20. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim, You are sounding more and more like a grumpy old man. Frankly, my local library system sucks. They have an impenetrable website and they give you only three weeks per book. Then they dun you $1.32 in fines. It’s ridiculous.

  21. warrenhollowbooks Avatar
    warrenhollowbooks

    I live in a rural area so e-books are handy
    Plus, as I get older the option of changing font size becomes nicer and nicer.

    Now buying used books, that is another story . . .

  22. warrenhollowbooks Avatar
    warrenhollowbooks

    I live in a rural area so e-books are handy
    Plus, as I get older the option of changing font size becomes nicer and nicer.

    Now buying used books, that is another story . . .

  23. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Our library has annual or semi-annual “book sales” where the entire lobby is chock-a-block with books for a dollar or less per book.

    Such fabulous jewels as “DOS made easy” and “The life and times of some obscure politician I never heard of”, etc…

    I’m pretty sure they don’t get put back in storage as the end of the sale… they just get more donations before the next sale!

    I have a friend – he cannot throw away a book. When he dies, his sons will have to get a large dumpster to hold all the books – that now almost completely fill each room with a narrow walkway left between.

    Every conversation we have usually has some version of ” I have that book somewhere.. haven’t been able to find it for years”.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      There are some bargains to be found at library sales.

      I once obtained a somewhat rare hardcover first edition of a Christopher Moore novel at a $1.00 sale at my local library. It was either “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” or “Fluke”, I can’t remember which. It looked like it had been checked out only once or twice. I would have felt guilty paying only a dollar for it so I gave them $10.

      1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
        Peter Galuszka

        Love Nun? On an island? Really ?

        1. WayneS Avatar

          It’s a very funny book – if you like bizarre, absurdist humor.

  24. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Our library has annual or semi-annual “book sales” where the entire lobby is chock-a-block with books for a dollar or less per book.

    Such fabulous jewels as “DOS made easy” and “The life and times of some obscure politician I never heard of”, etc…

    I’m pretty sure they don’t get put back in storage as the end of the sale… they just get more donations before the next sale!

    I have a friend – he cannot throw away a book. When he dies, his sons will have to get a large dumpster to hold all the books – that now almost completely fill each room with a narrow walkway left between.

    Every conversation we have usually has some version of ” I have that book somewhere.. haven’t been able to find it for years”.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      There are some bargains to be found at library sales.

      I once obtained a somewhat rare hardcover first edition of a Christopher Moore novel at a $1.00 sale at my local library. It was either “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” or “Fluke”, I can’t remember which. It looked like it had been checked out only once or twice. I would have felt guilty paying only a dollar for it so I gave them $10.

      1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
        Peter Galuszka

        Love Nun? On an island? Really ?

        1. WayneS Avatar

          It’s a very funny book – if you like bizarre, absurdist humor.

  25. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    that was quite generous.. how much was it worth? $20 ? 😉

    1. WayneS Avatar

      It was “Fluke” (I finally remembered) and you’re not far off – it was probably worth $30- $35.

  26. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    that was quite generous.. how much was it worth? $20 ? 😉

    1. WayneS Avatar

      It was “Fluke” (I finally remembered) and you’re not far off – it was probably worth $30- $35.

  27. Policy Student Avatar
    Policy Student

    I’m with Richmond. My kid forgot to return a stack of library books before we visited family during the holidays. The library assessed an inflexible $50 fine. The fine did not teach my kid responsibility. It taught my kid to avoid libraries. It cut into our weekly grocery budget. To James’ point, responsibility does matter. I suggest a letter/ call explaining the importance of sharing books with other kids instead of a fine.

  28. Policy Student Avatar
    Policy Student

    I’m with Richmond. My kid forgot to return a stack of library books before we visited family during the holidays. The library assessed an inflexible $50 fine. The fine did not teach my kid responsibility. It taught my kid to avoid libraries. It cut into our weekly grocery budget. To James’ point, responsibility does matter. I suggest a letter/ call explaining the importance of sharing books with other kids instead of a fine.

  29. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Friendly amendment – offer kid 1/2 day of library work – on sorting books and working on overdue book letters… etc..

    1. Policy Student Avatar
      Policy Student

      Volunteering is an interesting idea. I might be on board if adjusted for child’s age.

  30. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    yep – adjust for age – but it’s a win-win-win..

    gets them to a “learning” place with lots of books

    engenders the idea that “debt” is a consequence of a purposeful
    choice and that debt is a commitment to work to pay it back.

    finally, they learn skills in learning how to sort and categorize books,
    publications, information, etc

    That’s an ideal situation for a lot of kids.. I would think…

  31. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    yep – adjust for age – but it’s a win-win-win..

    gets them to a “learning” place with lots of books

    engenders the idea that “debt” is a consequence of a purposeful
    choice and that debt is a commitment to work to pay it back.

    finally, they learn skills in learning how to sort and categorize books,
    publications, information, etc

    That’s an ideal situation for a lot of kids.. I would think…

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