We’re fine without fines

I had an interesting conversation today with a student worker who wanted to know if we charge for replacement ID cards. I said no, and that even if there was a policy in the past, I was not in favor of charging students extra for things, especially since most students have little money. I pointed out that it’s possible a lost ID is at campus safety, so it might be good to ask the student to check there before having a new one made, but otherwise, just make the replacement. The student worker said they hadn’t heard a librarian say anything like that before.

We also don’t charge fines at my library, although if a book is never returned we do bill for replacement. one of our staff has been calling patrons with bills, and she said today that they don’t always believe there will be no charge if they return a long overdue item and some have even said they don’t return it out of fear of a big fine.

When I worked at a public library, “fine free” was becoming popular. In 2017, NY Public Library System president Anthony Marx wrote about some forays into fine amnesty and fine free borrowing for kids and noted that in response to those who worried about what fine free tells people about responsibility, “what is truly the greater moral hazard? Having fines or not having fines? In my view, teaching kids that the library is not an option for the poorest among them is absolutely unacceptable.” Indeed. It has always really frosted me when kids can’t use the library because of fines.

Because it turns out, library fees and fines are regressive. And now the Chicago Public Library has become the largest American library system to go fine free. Library Commissioner Andrea Telli had a similar response to the question of whether eliminating fines erodes accountability: “Libraries don’t necessarily want to be in the morality business, and we don’t want to make the assumption that if a book is late or someone can’t pay for a fine, that they’re delinquent or bad in some way; they may just be in a place in their life where they can’t pay the fine.”

Exactly. It turns out the value of returned items is often higher than that of fines collected, and that fines don’t deter people from returning items late — they just prevent people from feeling the library is for them. Which is not in line with the values of librarianship, or of human decency generally.

If the administrations that provide our funding want fines to be part of our budgets (which is not even necessarily the case — in Chicago, fines never went to the library), we need to help them learn about equity and inclusion, and stand with our colleagues who point out that we’re fine without fines, but excluding our patrons because they can’t pay is not fine.

 

Diversity in libraries

I subscribed to the recent ALA Reference and User Services CODES (collection development and evaluation section) conversation on diversity. I think of myself as someone who is concerned about all kinds of equality, and is aware of my privilege as a white middle class professional. Certainly I’ve championed libraries as egalitarian outposts in an increasingly divided society. I get that “we need diverse books.” And that even my very white state has become much more diverse in the last ten years.

What I hadn’t thought about is the bias in the way I’m marketed to, as a collection development librarian. Yes, I primarily make my purchasing decisions based on reviews in professional journals, but those journals are written and edited by, and feature books published by, people who are mostly very much like me, demographically. Some of the participants in the conversation online noted that it’s hard to even find reviews of books by diverse authors in genre fiction, like sci-fi or mysteries.

Andrea Gough of Seattle Public Library wondered if librarians are even biased in the way we think about diversity. She noted, “perhaps because we’re a largely white field, or because our culture normalizes a white viewpoint as a ‘neutral’ viewpoint, when we talk about diversity it’s often presumed the direction is from white to POC.” In other words, the entire conversation about diversity starts with making libraries and their collections less white. But that oversimplifies diversity and overlooks the complexity of contemporary American society.

As I read I made a mental list of some of the non-racial diversity in the community I serve: homeless people, former inmates, addicts, people with less than the average amount of education for our area, immigrants, transgender people, gay or lesbian or bisexual people, various religious minorities, and a wide range of people who are differently abled, physically or mentally, just to name a few. Yes, it’s important to consider the whiteness of publishing, and of the library profession, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the other types of diversity in our communities.

Another fascinating point in the conversation was that it’s too over-simplified, and frankly, biased, for collection developers to simply purchase more “diverse” materials. One person told a story of a new library branch in an African American neighborhood where the music buyer had purchased a wide selection of rap and hip-hop. One of the first questions at the desk was whether there were any opera CD’s. Someone else pointed out the reverse is true as well — people in more homogeneous communities assume library patrons won’t want to read books with protagonists of a different race, religion, ethnicity, or cultural background and yet that there is no evidence of that, and it’s often just plain untrue. Think of novels like Things Fall Apart or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Kite Runner and of nonfiction such as Between the World and Me or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. All enjoyed a wide audience.

One of the best things about books, of course, is that they take us into lives we’ll never live. And with that in mind, one of the contributors pointed out that the goal of a good library collection is not only to meet the existing needs of the library’s patrons but also to present materials that will affirm our common humanity and expand patrons’ experience beyond the walls of the library or the boundaries of a town.

This issue is obviously too vast to be covered in a blog post, but I intend to keep considering diversity and the ways my own “frames” need to be expanded or even better, abandoned, in order to best serve every person who comes through the library’s doors.