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Baltimore's Pratt Library goes fine free for overdue books

Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library says it will become the first major urban library system on the East Coast to eliminate fines on overdue books and other materials on Monday when it wipes out $186,000 in penalties for 26,000 people and welcomes back 13,000 borrowers whose cards have been blocked.

The library will forgo about $100,000 in fines collected each year, but will continue to charge customers full price to replace books never returned. President Heidi Daniel, who took over last year after longtime leader Carla Hayden left to head the Library of Congress, described the action as a goodwill gesture that speaks to the Pratt’s mission in Baltimore while reflecting a trend sweeping libraries across the country.

“People always think: ‘That’s such a radical idea. How can the library exist if you don’t charge fines?’ ” Daniel said. “Once we start talking it through … people get it pretty quickly. It makes a lot of sense.

“It’s going to have a profound impact on the city of Baltimore. I really hope this re-engages people and makes them remember how much we have to offer every neighborhood in the city.”

The Pratt — which will become the first library system in Maryland to make the change — will celebrate going fine-free with a community block party from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday at the Walbrook branch, 3203 W. North Avenue in West Baltimore.

The new policy is welcome news for Vanessa Gordon. The Pigtown woman devours books — African-American authors, Danielle Steel and other bestsellers. She visits the Washington Village branch as often as once a week,

But she says her multiple sclerosis disrupts her life, throwing off schedules and getting in the way of returning her library books before the due dates. Fines stack up, and paying them is both an inconvenience and a burden.

“Sometimes I am not well, especially in the winter, and I can’t get out,” said Gordon, who just finished “Perfect is Boring” by Tyra Banks and Banks’ mother, Carolyn London. “I love the library. I love to read. This is absolutely fabulous.”

Daniel said other libraries that have done away with fines — in Salt Lake City, Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn. — report higher circulation but little difference in unreturned materials. The Pratt’s circulation has fallen in recent years, from 1.16 million in 2015 to 991,000.

Daniel said analysis by the Pratt and other libraries shows that fining customers affects lower-income users disproportionately, and punishes children who might have limited control over returning books on time. About 2,500 of the Pratt’s blocked cards belong to children and teens.

The branches with the most blocked users are the main library downtown, the Pennsylvania Avenue branch in West Baltimore and the Southeast Anchor Library near Highlandtown. All serve high concentrations of customers living in poverty, who Daniel said are most in need of the library’s services, such as access to computers and the internet, help with homework and free classes.

For the poorest customers, Daniel said, paying fines can be such a barrier that they stop using the library. Adults are charged 20 cents a day for late materials up to $6 per item. Children and teens are charged 10 cents a day up to $3, which librarians said can accumulate easily when parents and children check out stacks of colorful picture books to read together.

Once the debt reaches $10, cards have been blocked.

Whatever a patron’s ability to pay, Daniel said, asking librarians to collect fines creates an adversarial exchange that takes away from their time and desire to help.

“We see families who come in and have to leave empty-handed without books,” Daniel said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Why are we in the City of Baltimore?’

“It’s not because we want to collect your 10-cent fine. We’re in the City of Baltimore because we want to provide access and we want to empower every resident of this city. We can’t do that if we’re telling people at $10 you can’t use us anymore.”

The money the library expects to lose in fines amounts to a quarter of a percent of its $40 million annual budget. Daniel said the library will not cut any services as a result. She is considering adding revenue-generating services, such as accepting passport applications, to help offset the loss.

Five percent of the Pratt’s 290,000 active users are blocked due to fines. About 26,000 items, or 1.5 percent of the Pratt’s materials, are considered lost, meaning that the customer has been billed for the replacement cost.

Under the new policy, the replacement cost of the book will be waived when users return the item in good condition, no matter when. Cards will be blocked at $25; payment plans will be available.

Pam Sandlian Smith, president of the Public Library Association, said a growing number of libraries are going fine-free. Others, including in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, provide special exceptions only for children. Some systems let customers reduce their fines by reading or by donating canned food instead of payment.

“The key reason libraries are making this decision is an understanding that fines are a barrier to people successfully using the library,” said Smith, a Colorado librarian whose system went fine-free in 2009. “It negates the entire public library experience. We want kids and families — we want everybody — using the library, because we want kids loving to read books so they grow up to be readers and curious thinkers and problem-solvers.”

More libraries are considering how to become fine-free, Smith said, but depend on the fine revenue for operations. Some oppose the idea of going fine-free because they see imposing fines as teaching personal responsibility.

Daniel said the Pratt has a role in teaching responsibility — but through programs and classes, such as those in financial literacy or life skills. Under the new policy, people will continue to have a financial incentive to return their books. Items declared lost, after the due date and a series of automatic renewals, when applicable, will be billed along with fees of about $15. If a book is still not returned 45 days after the final due date, the library will contact a collection agency. The debt would not count against a credit report.

Whether fines are a good way of teaching responsibility is debatable, Daniel said.

“I am not sure I am teaching an 8-year-old personal responsibility when they come in and we say to them, ‘I am sorry you can’t have any items today,’ ” she said. “Research shows people who return their books on time, responsibly, will continue to do so, because it’s the right thing to do.

“The other incentive is, we will send you a bill.”

Peter Bromberg runs the Salt Lake City library, which went fine-free a year ago. He said the system’s circulation has gone up 10 percent after trending downward for three years, and more lost materials have been returned. Bromberg said people had held on to overdue books because they were afraid of the fines.

The lost fines represent about a third of 1 percent of the library’s budget, he said.

“In the library, arguing about fines is the single most negative experience for customers and staff,” he said. Eliminating the fines is “a customer service boon.”

In Nashville, going fine-free a year ago has also been positive, spokeswoman Andrea Fanta said. Late fee fines brought in $159,000 annually, she said.

“For us, when we looked at the so-called cost of revenue of late fines versus people not being able to use their accounts and check out books, the analysis showed it was worth it,” Fanta said.

Helen Witte of Medfield takes her children, ages 4 to 9, to the Hampden branch on Falls Road each week. They carry out 15 or more books every time. She tries to limit each child to five, but her youngest always grabs extras.

Witte says her schedule is often hectic, and getting every book back to the library before the due date can sometimes get lost in the bustle of life.

She said the freedom that will come with having no more fines will make life a little simpler.

“There is one book in our house that is missing,” Witte said. “We’re still on the lookout for that.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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