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More libraries doing away with overdue fines

New York

MARK Twain once described the public library as "the most enduring of memorials," a free centre of intellectual and educational power accessible to old and young alike. Libraries today are seeking to keep it that way, with many offering a reprieve to those who fail to return their books on time.

Last week, the Free Library of Philadelphia ended its policy of charging fines on overdue materials. It is one of several library systems, among them Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and San Diego, that have adopted a no-fee or amnesty policy in recent years.

In Philadelphia, lost or destroyed items need to be replaced before people can check out more books, said Siobhan Reardon, director of the Free Library. However, in lieu of cash, the library also accepts "new or gently used copies" as replacements. Why? Libraries want the books and other materials back so other patrons can enjoy them, too.

Even as free information has proliferated online, libraries have remained essential fixtures of America's small towns and city neighbourhoods. "Libraries are the lifeblood of American communities and democratic culture," said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of social science at New York University and author of the 2018 book, Palaces for the People. "One of the special things about libraries and librarians is that they dignify the people who walk in."

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The American Library Association urged its members a year ago to reexamine their policies on fines, which it said discouraged violators from accessing other services. Libraries are home to movie nights, free children's activities, career training and literacy programs, and they offer computer access to patrons.

In October, the Chicago Public Library eliminated late fees, citing research that showed that young and low-income patrons were disproportionally affected by the fines. One in five suspended library cards belonged to children aged 14 and younger, the city said in a statement.

Cities in California have been at the centre of the shift. According to a 2019 report prepared by the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, overdue library fines disproportionately affected low-income and African American patrons. "Locations serving low-income areas have higher average debt amounts and more blocked users," the report said. NYTIMES

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