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.

 

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A fringe benefit of the Trump era for librarians?

I read a fascinating and also somewhat irritating piece today by David Beard at Poynter, contrasting two polls about public mistrust of the media in the Trump age with one establishing how high public trust of librarians, which has been a mainstay of our profession for a long time, is right now. Beard points out all the usual stuff about why people think highly of their libraries and librarians, and why they don’t think as highly of the media.

I found it interesting that he refers to librarians as journalists’ “information-gathering cousins,” especially since he writes for a “thought leader” (Poynter Institute) that lists fact-checking among its special concerns. So journalists are supposed to be, ideally, information gatherers. But don’t news organizations, large ones at least, have librarians on staff? In places where that isn’t the case, are journalists using library resources as they do background research?

Beard goes on to speak with Mike Sullivan, librarian Weare, New Hampshire, a town not far from mine, who started a library/town newspaper. It’s an interesting idea, for a library to step into what people see as a void of “fake news” and fill it with relevant information. Beard goes on to say that Sullivan is working to counter the common view that libraries are “free” and so not valuable, but then he veers into a new direction.

“Libraries cannot bring down a president, or regularly push accountability of government officials who may help fund the institution,” Beard says. I think librarians do just that in various ways and to varying degrees — ask Scott Bonner, of Ferguson, Missouri. By his actions in making the library a safe space when the police couldn’t or wouldn’t make the rest of the town one, he absolutely held officials accountable. Are we any more or less likely to bring a president down? If not down, at least rendered less effective. The American Library Association has worked for over a year to rally its members to oppose the administration’s immigration bans, budget priorities, and executive orders that “contradict core values” of our profession. Many librarians also stood firm against the privacy overreaches of The Patriot Act, refusing to turn over patron records. And we value radical hospitality in a society that is often segregated along social, racial, and economic lines.

Beard then goes on to suggest library/journalist partnerships, and speaks with Tom Huang of the Dallas Morning News:

“In areas not served by traditional news outlets, libraries, already trusted by the community, could become a hub for news collection, Huang says. There would have to be training on one-on-one interviewing techniques or how to be an assigner or “editor” for events or stories done by community members — as well as the understanding that these are beginning steps to journalism, not involved investigative pieces. ‘Ultimately, we could train librarians to do some of this stuff,’ Huang says. ‘It’s not like it’s rocket science.'”

So let’s get this straight. Librarians and libraries are seen as sources of reliable information for citizens, and in some cases they are taking that information to the public in creative ways, as with the Weare paper. But what libraries really need is for journalists — who Beard has just said are nearly reviled at this point — to teach them what to do because gee, even librarians could learn this stuff.

What do you think of all this? My view is that public libraries already know how to partner with community members and organizations including journalists, and that school, public, and academic librarians have been showing people how to find and use information effectively for as long as libraries have existed, which as far as I know is longer than the media has. We don’t need to be “trained . . . to do some of this stuff” to be effective partners. And we certainly don’t need to be told how to oppose repression or intolerance or expose lack in our communities. If anything, journalists might benefit, based on the public perception of our respective professions, from mentioning their own library use in their work. Maybe if journalists admitted looking things up at their local library, the public would trust them more.