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The Editorial Board: Buffalo and Erie County library system alleviates inequity by canceling late fees

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Buffalo and Erie County Public Library exterior (copy)

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has proposed to eliminate fines for overdue books in the county library system. Libararies in other parts of the country that have adopted a similar policy says usage increased because of it. 

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Will canceling library fines in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system turn a new generation of readers into juvenile delinquents?

The evidence from other library systems says no. Releasing library borrowers from financial penalties for delinquent returns leads to more people making use of libraries and their wealth of materials.

The Erie County system intends to stop charging late fines on May 1, if the library’s board gives its approval. Lost or damaged materials will still accrue fines. Electronic downloads – which return themselves – are not affected.

The “Fine-Free Movement” has been catching on across the country. Baltimore Chicago, Dallas, Nashville, Philadelphia and San Francisco are among the cities whose library systems put an end to fines for late materials.

Library Journal’s reporting on amnesty periods for returning overdue books found that the public responds with many happy returns. One fine-forgiveness effort in Chicago led to 20,000 overdue items being returned. Los Angeles saw nearly 65,000 and San Francisco close to 700,000.

The Chicago program also resulted in more individuals obtaining library cards and more books being checked out.

Amnesty programs are always controversial. Individuals who have followed the rules don’t like it when others get a free pass. But “free” has always been part of the reason for libraries to exist.

As Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, told The New York Times last month, libraries are “not in the revenue-generating business. We’re in the encouraging-to-read-and-learn business.”

Revenues from late fees have accounted for very small portions of public library system budgets.

Studies have shown that poor people were most likely to have their library accounts blocked due to overdue fines they were unable to pay.

Jeannine Doyle, interim director of the Erie County system, told The News that “the value of increased access to library resources for the residents of Erie County outweighs the loss of revenue.”

In addition to books, libraries offer electronic books and movies, free computer and internet access and technology workshops. The free knowledge they make available promotes upward mobility for the poor and helps with assimilation for new Americans.

Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist who funded the building of 2,500 libraries across the United States, would likely approve of the “Fine-Free Movement.”

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library,” Carnegie said, “this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

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Related to this story

"It's going to focus on issues of resilience," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told The Buffalo News about his State of the County address. "The county, in itself, cannot solve the issues that are politicizing and creating divisiveness, but hopefully, we can do things to help bring the community together."

Starting May 1, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system will be doing away with fines for overdue materials. The library system has already cleared all outstanding overdue daily fines in library card user accounts, as well as hold and unclaimed pick-up fees, according to Interim Director Jeannine Doyle.  

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