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If Chicago libraries are dropping late fees, show the proof it’s best for kids

If the Chicago Public Library is going to eliminate late fees, let’s see the evidence in a year or two that doing so has put more books into children’s hands.

Patrons inside the Chicago Public Library branch in Chinatown.
The Chicago Public Library will eliminate late fees — an idea championed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Last spring, the Chicago Sun-Times partnered with the public schools to get at least one book into the hands of at least 2,500 children as they went home for summer vacation.

We were thrilled to be a part of the program, “Chicago Reads.” Nothing ensures success in life more than the ability to read. A child who can read — and who, better yet, loves to read — is halfway home to traveling the world.

It’s with that in mind that we support a new plan by the Chicago Public Library to eliminate late fees starting on Oct. 1. If late fees are keeping kids from checking out books and other materials from the library — and the data suggests they are — then let’s see what happens when late fees are eliminated.

We take this position, though, with reservations. We believe in personal responsibility — that’s the rub — and there’s a good argument that people already can avoid library late fees just by getting books back on time.

If the Chicago Public Library is going to eliminate late fees, we’d like to see hard evidence, a year or two from now, that doing so has resulted in more people, especially children, using the library. We’d also like to see proof that the new policy has not led to even more people failing to return library materials.

Toward that end, the library’s new policy should include a sunset provision. Late fines should kick back in at a date set now if an internal review cannot substantiate the benefits of eliminating the fines.

If more people are checking out materials because there are no late fees, that should be easy to measure. If more people than ever are failing to return materials, that should be easy to measure, too.

If Chicago is going to forfeit $875,000 a year in library fines — money that goes into the general revenue fund — let’s be sure it’s worth the cost.

Our general support for the new plan, presented by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, rests on a single unsettling statistic:

One in every three library card holders in the Chicago Public Library’s South District — the entire city south of 59th Street — is locked out from borrowing books because they have $10 or more in late fees. In the library’s North District — an area north of North Avenue — only one in six cardholders are locked out.

We can debate until the cows come home why this is. Is it a matter of failed personal responsibility for which we should feel little sympathy? Or is it prohibitively difficult for many low income families to pay a late fee of even $10?

The answers to those questions matter less to us than the unacceptable result — tens of thousands of Chicago’s children can’t check a book out of the library.

We are doing our schools no favors.

Librarians generally favor eliminating late fees, viewing them as barriers that discriminate against the poor. A major “policy objective” of the American Library Association is the “removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.” At a meeting in January, the ALA passed a resolution calling library fines “a form of social inequity.”

Public library systems in other cities — including Denver, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio — have eliminated late fees and report no negative consequences.

On the contrary, says Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael, California, public library, libraries have learned that the best way to get people to return books and other materials is to remind them, not fine them. What motivates people to return things, that is to say, is a desire to be good library citizens, not monetary penalties.

The San Rafael Library does not charge late fines for children’s books and materials, but instead sends families an email three days before an item is due and a second email one day after the item was due. If they still have no luck, they send an email three weeks later stating that the patron must return the item or pay for a replacement.

“We have found that people do not keep youth materials out any longer since we’ve eliminated fines,” Houghton said in an interview last year with American Libraries magazine. “This has been shown in library after library as they eliminate some or all overdue fines.”

We definitely think best of library patrons who return stuff on time or pay a fee without whining. We’re thinking in particular of Emily Canellos-Simms, of downstate Kewanee, who holds the Guinness World Record for paying the highest library book fine, $345.14.

Canellos-Simms found a copy of book of children’s poems, “Days and Deeds”, in her mother’s home in 2002. It had been overdue from the Kewanee Public Library since April 15, 1955. She returned it.

But a library’s primary mission is to get books into people’s hands. It is, as Houghton said, to “encourage lifelong learning, exploration and innovation.”

If eliminating late fees furthers that mission, we support the move on balance.

And in a year or two, the Chicago Public Library should be able to show the proof.

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