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Ending late library fees is not a fine idea

There are a number of alternative approaches libraries could use, rather than flat-out eliminating fees.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Although not surprising, the decision last month by the Hennepin County Library Board to eliminate fines on overdue books and other items was disappointing. It seemed inevitable that the board that governs the library system would do so as part of a movement around the rest of the country abrogating late fees.

The campaign to drop penalties on overdue publications, movies, DVDs, music, and other matters gained momentum here last year when the St. Paul library system did so, forgiving more than $2.5 million outstanding penalties and fees. Then came Duluth, which abolished library fees last summer, and at least two other communities, Hibbing on the Iron Range, and Grand Marais in the northeast tip of the state, fell in line. Those developments led to the gathering of signatures on a petition to the Hennepin County Board, whose 11 commissioners unanimously followed suit for its 41 library locations, including its largest component in Minneapolis, with 14 branch facilities in addition to its cornerstone gem, the downtown Central Library.

The Hennepin system has been joined by Ramsey and Washington County library systems in Minnesota, as well as a number of municipalities around the country, such as Chicago, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, and Baltimore. While there was unopposed support on the board for eliminating fines, and strong support from the public, here’s a dissent from a friend, literally and figuratively.

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Library legacy

Hennepin County has a long and historic library legacy, formed in 2008 with the merger with the Minneapolis Public Library, which dates back to 1885. The current arrangement‘s 41 brick-and-mortar buildings are supplemented with websites and outreach programs, which serve  some 1.2 million county residents. 

I am part of that legacy, having spent many youthful hours at the historic Sumner Branch Library, created in 1915, funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who paid for many libraries across the nation.

Sumner is a beautiful, big brown building, located on Highway 55, a mile outside of downtown Minneapolis on the edge of north Minneapolis. It has evolved over time both physically and programmatically to keep up with the ever-changing demographics of the area. School visits, special weekend and evening programs, and individual and collective study with friends occupied a great deal of time during my formative years. When I turned to the building in 2015 for its centennial celebration, I was struck by its continuity, stability and flexibility in adapting to the new needs for a different, diverse community now composed largely of ethnic and racial minorities and people of color. I fondly recall those times each day as I drive past the edifice to and from my law firm office in downtown Minneapolis.

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick
My affinity for the library system has been formalized by my participation as a member of the “Friends of the Hennepin County Library” program, which provides funding and other assistance for the library and its patrons.

Despite this affection, or perhaps because of it, the movement to abolish fines on late books is troubling. Writing them off represents only a small blip, about $600,000 annually, in the library system’s gargantuan $90 million budget. Those fines range from 5 cents to 30 cents per day, with a ceiling of a $10 accumulation in fines, along with a prohibition of a tardy borrower from checking out further materials.

Some 72,000 cardholders, about 1/8 of the 810,000 individuals who have them in Hennepin County, end up on the library’s “no fly” (or no borrow) list, and a disproportionate number of them are minorities, people of low income, or both. This socio-economic disparity is one of the bases for the abolition of fines, recognition of its heavier impact on people with low incomes and limited financial means. Another reason is that eliminating the fines will avoid discouraging patrons from using the library and their elimination will incentivize more people to use the libraries, particularly low-income people, who are most in need of their services.

These rationales may have some validity, but they do not justify a wholesale abolition of fines. While imposition of fines and economic sanctions upon people who fail to timely return borrowed items has a disparate impact on low-income people, so do many, perhaps most, charges of much greater magnitude for providing goods and rendering series. Those who support doing away with late fees might urge the City of Minneapolis, whose library makes up such a major chunk of the Hennepin county system, to stop charging for vehicles at parking meters, or at least not imposing fines on those who overstay their time limit due to the disproportionate impact on low-income people.

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This kind of thought process could reasonably be extended to other public services, no longer charging people for driver’s licenses, vehicle transfer fees, even imposing monetary fines for driving offenses, all of which have an inherent disparate impact on people who are economically disadvantaged.

System inequities

But these inequities, inherent to our economic system, do not necessarily warrant giving people of lesser means a free pass or get out of library free card for checking out materials.

Imposing fines alerts them to consequences of failure to abide by prescribed requirements and instills a desirable respect for following reasonable and legitimate rules. To the contrary, allowing people to borrow books and other media and keep them for long periods of time, perhaps forever, has the opposite effect. Moreover, eliminating fines for books that are never returned essentially gives people an opportunity to take books from the library and never return them, setting up 41 free bookstores. It might encourage more reading, but the increase in encouragement in reading is outbalanced by the diminution in responsible behavior. It also precludes others who want borrow items from having access to them. Abolishing late changes in order to encourage greater use of libraries, rather than requiring them to return items on time, is a shibboleth. Those who abuse their library privileges ought not be encouraged to use the facilities, unless they are willing and able to follow the rules and requirements imposed by the facilities.

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Alternative approaches

Recognizing the financial and other inequities in the imposition of fines does not leave the library system without remedies in dealing with scofflaws. There are a number of alternative approaches it could use, rather than flat-out eliminating fees.

Those who are overdue in returning materials could be asked to provide services, like stacking books or cleaning facilities to work off their fines. This type of community service could impress upon them the importance of timeliness, while also helping the library system, a real win-win.

There may be other concepts or ways to curb abuse of library privileges without unduly discouraging use of the facilities or discriminating de facto against those who cannot afford to pay fines.

But abolishing late charges altogether is not a fine idea.

Marshall H. Tanick is constitutional law attorney and historian with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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