Penny wise: Baltimore's Pratt goes fine-free

Public libraries are such a fixture of the American landscape that it’s easy to forget exactly why they exist. We take for granted that local governments operate at least one public library in each Maryland subdivision, that they are supported primarily by tax dollars, that they are free and open to everyone, that they are governed by public boards and their use is entirely voluntary (nobody is required to avail themselves of a public library).

And there’s at least one other element of public libraries that many of us take for granted because it’s existed for generations: There’s a time limit on material we take out on loan from the library, and if we exceed that limit, we will face fines that gradually increase over time. Should we refuse to pay? We will lose borrowing privileges.

That lending contract is so ingrained (and frankly, intuitive, given the motivation it gives people to return borrowed books) that some readers of this newspaper may have been troubled to learn that the state’s oldest system, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, this week stopped assessing overdue fines. That’s right — no more late fees (although failure to return a book can still get you charged for its replacement). Keep “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” an extra week, however, and you face nothing worse than a little embarrassment, if that.

Baltimore is reportedly the first major East Coast system to take such a radical action. And it isn’t without cost to the system. Library officials estimate that it will mean losing out on about $100,000 in fines annually.

But the decision is also something else: a great idea. That’s because it recognizes two important realities. The first, and perhaps most pertinent, is that fines disproportionately impact low-income families who are less able to pay and often less able to get back material to their local Pratt branch in a timely manner. The result is that more of these families are ultimately shut out from Pratt material, and it’s often the children who are most affected — 2,500 of the Pratt’s 13,000 “blocked” cards belong to kids.

The second returns to our original question: Why does the Pratt exist? It is to give everyone a chance to read and learn. Oh, that mission statement can be dressed up a bit: "to provide equal access to information, services, and opportunities that empower, enrich, and enhance the quality of life for all," is how the Pratt expresses its purpose officially. But basically, the point is that the residents of Baltimore are given a chance to learn to their heart’s content. That’s not just good for those individuals, it’s good for the community.

In this mid-term election season, much has been said by the various candidates about the importance of education in the 21st century economy, and rightly so. Some of those running promise to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade K-12, and make some college tuition-free or at least more affordable. In that context, public libraries are a bargain. Why would we ever want to discourage their use? And what makes the move a real no-brainer is that other big cities from Columbus to Salt Lake City that have taken similar action to eliminate fines have seen no increase in overdue books as a result. So the fines, as logical as they may have seemed, weren’t doing much good anyway.

Will the Pratt have to find a way to fill a $100,000 “hole” in its budget? Yes, but in the context of a $40 million budget, that represents about 0.25 percent. That’s a small price to pay to nurture readership in a city that used to boast about its interest in reading but which hasn’t always backed it up with school test scores. Overdue fines? Better to find new ways to bring the next generation into the Pratt rather than keep them away. Ignorance is far more costly than a dime or two a day.

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