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Back to Basics – Fines and Early Literacy

In August, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion to eliminate late fines for overdue books and materials borrowed from LA County Library. In her announcements to staff and customers, LA County Library Director Skye Patrick shared that fines and fees for overdue materials impede access to vital library resources and services and contribute to economic hardship, especially for low-income families and youth. Other libraries have reported that fines and fees disproportionately impact their low-income communities, and going fine free has resulted in a significant increase in the return and borrowing of library materials. I am already hearing expressions of appreciation from parents visiting my library location. As one of the largest library systems in the U.S. with 85 libraries providing services to over 3.4 million residents across 3,000 square miles, the potential positive impact of the LA County Board of Supervisors’ decision is immense.  

The ALSC Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Libraries charges librarians to remove and advocate for the removal of barriers to library services for children based on socioeconomic circumstances. In 2019, ALA Council adopted a resolution asserting that fines create a barrier to library services and urged libraries to eliminate them. When at a recent meeting Priority Group Consultant Lisa Kropp reminded Early & Family Literacy Committee (EFL) members that “There is nothing more basic to promoting early and family literacy than a fine free library” it seemed a perfect time to share LA County Library’s exciting news and to mention a few important resources previously shared on the ALSC blog that we can use to advocate for fine free libraries.

In 2015, the Colorado State Library (CSL) issued the white paper Removing Barriers to Access: Eliminating Library fines and Fees on Children’s Materials advocating for the removal of library fines and fees on children’s materials. CSL reported survey and focus group responses from parents and public libraries in Colorado about the costs and benefits of library fines and fees. The responses revealed that while fines and fees provide no clear benefit to libraries, parents do find fines and fees a barrier to their and their children’s use of the library’s resources. The report also includes an extensive literature review of research and academic and professional literature on the topic. CSL states that “Early literacy skills are crucial to school readiness, so it is important that parents and caregivers from all income-levels in our society have access to materials they can use daily in the home to practice reading, singing, talking, writing, and playing with their children.”

To help develop advocacy skills, I highly recommend watching librarian Dawn Wacek’s TED talk A librarian’s case against overdue book fines. In addition to CSL’s white paper, you can also find links to a wealth of resources to support the fine free library movement compiled on the following 2 websites: North Dakota State Library’s Public Library Director Toolkit on Fine Free Resources, and the Colorado Virtual Library Eliminating Fines Resources website.

Prior to going fine free, LA County Library used several initiatives to help reduce the barriers created by overdue fines. These initiatives included an amnesty month in 2017, the Great Read Away program allowing library cardholders 21 years old and under to read away fines, and fine free student cards that were also issued digitally when libraries were closed during the pandemic. Even without going fine free, libraries may be able to use initiatives such as these to decrease barriers to access.

Not long after customers were notified that LA County Library was going fine free, a frequent and long-time library customer approached me and stated, “This doesn’t make any sense. No one is going to bring anything back anymore.” After I briefly explained the research that shows the opposite is more likely to be true and the research showing the positive impact this decision will have on low-income families who need our services the most, the customer responded, “OK, that makes sense. I’m glad you’re doing this.” And so am I. 

This post was written by Joanna Ward, Youth Services Librarian with LA County Library and a member of the Early and Family Literacy Committee. She can be reached at alscfamilyliteracy@gmail.com.

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group and V. Outreach and Advocacy

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