(TNS) - Chicago public libraries will stop fining people for overdue books and wipe away patrons’ outstanding debt, a move that makes the city the largest of more than 200 municipalities across the country to do so.
In a Monday announcement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wants to help low-income people regain access to the system that has blocked them from borrowing materials because they have hit the threshold of $10 in fees.
Research cited by the American Library Association and the Urban Libraries Council suggests eliminating overdue fees also should increase overall book return rates and overall circulation rates — meaning more books in the hands of more Chicagoans.
“I can say this with complete confidence: I have been following these stories of the growing trend towards eliminating fines at library systems across the country very closely for the last year, and I’m not aware of any serious consequence of a library going fine-free,” said Curtis Rogers, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Urban Libraries Council.
Starting Tuesday, checked-out books automatically will renew as many as 15 times, as long as no one else places a hold on them, according to Patrick Molloy, a spokesman for Chicago’s library system. Emails with due date reminders and fine warnings instead will be sent each time the book is auto-renewed, or if the book has been requested by another patron.
Items will be marked as “lost” and accounts will be charged a replacement fee one week after the last due date, but the charge will be cleared if the item is returned, Molloy said.
A lockout threshold remains, but it will be bumped up to $30 from $10. If a person fails to return a book valued at $15, for example, he or she still can check out other materials. And say a person can buy the same book elsewhere for $8, the patron has the option of returning any “good condition” copy of the book he or she was fined for and the replacement fee will be reversed, Molloy said.
“I thought it was a great announcement on their part, and we’re fully supportive of the decision,” said Mary Ghikas, executive director of Chicago-based American Library Association. “We look at the negative impact of fines on the fundamental library responsibility to provide equitable access to all. There’s no evidence in the data that fines get you better behavior. It just gets you fewer users, actually."
Molloy said the Chicago Public Library collected $897,000 in late fines in 2018.
The city twice before has tried temporary amnesty programs, in 2012 and 2016, wiping out hundreds of thousands of dollars in late fees with the goal of recuperating missing materials. In 2012, the city wrote off $600,000 in fines, Molloy said, and those who’d been locked out of the system brought back about $2 million worth of missing books.
“Once people get fines that they can’t pay, they choose not to come back at all, so the materials also don’t come back," Molloy said. “Fines truthfully haven’t been a revenue stream and weren’t designed to be a revenue stream. It was supposed to be an incentive to get the materials back, and the research shows that’s just not the case.”
"Chicago this week will become the largest city in the country to eliminate overdue fees for library materials, according to officials."https://t.co/gf9gjt7y54
— Lori Lightfoot (@LightfootForChi) September 30, 2019
According to library data, 20% of suspended library cards belong to children younger than 14, which is not a group cities can afford to discourage from reading, said Rogers from the Urban Libraries Council. He said studies have shown libraries are consistently rated as the most trusted public institutions.
But fining people, especially children and economically disadvantaged groups, can undermine that trust.
“There is a common question we get, about if we believe that overdue fines serve a purpose of teaching responsibility, especially for children, and helping them develop responsible habits about borrowing and returning belongings," Rogers said. “Fines don’t teach responsibility. They just reinforce the difference between people who are able to pay for a common mistake and those who aren’t."
One in 3 patrons in the library’s South District — below 59th Street — currently are unable to check out items because they owe $10 or more in fines and fees. In the North District, from North Avenue to Howard Street, this number drops to 1 in 6.
Molloy said data shows residents on the North Side more often use digital materials than other areas, which includes books that can be downloaded to Kindle devices or other e-readers, which take an initial investment from residents that not everyone can afford. Digital copies don’t incur fines but rather are deleted from a device when they become overdue — often meaning those with potentially the greatest ability to pay the fines aren’t faced with them in the first place.
“It’s not that anyone from any one background is more likely to be late returning a book. People, no matter what their socioeconomic background is, make the same mistakes, but it’s the people who are living in upper-middle-class areas that are paying fines outright and not being blocked from additional services,” Molloy said. “Yet the groups most at need for library services are the ones most often locked out of the system.”
Overdue fines for books in Chicago have been set at 25 cents per day. Fines for DVDs were $1 per day, and for Wi-Fi hot spot equipment they were $2 per day.
Interlibrary loan items and the high-demand museum passport cards that allow free admission to Chicago museums will remain subject to overdue fines, because cities outside Chicago may still charge their own late fees and the city will need to recoup that money, Molloy said.
Lightfoot, whose wife, Amy Eshleman, is a former Chicago Public Library assistant commissioner, also reiterated her goal of adding Sunday hours at libraries over the next year.
“We are hoping to be making that announcement relatively soon,” she said. “Given the reality, which is we need to hire additional staff to be able to fulfill that mission, we’re going to roll it out on a rolling basis. But we will announce something relatively soon, and then we’ll keep adding to those Sunday hours.”
©2019 The Daily Southtown (Tinley Park, Ill.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.