EPISODE 27: Where Overdue Library Books Became A Thing of the Past

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Show Notes

Libraries in New York City are proving you don’t need fines to get books returned. What can everyone learn from what’s working?


Straw media. Think of it this
way. Late fines create an inequitable barrier

to library access, because the way
they work is that they penalize everyone equally.

If you think about that, this
is Lucas greenly from next city,

a show about change makers and their
stories. Truth is, there are solutions

to the problems of pressing people in
cities. If you're listening, I hope

it's because you want to spread good
ideas from one city to the next city.

Have you ever been a free to
return a book to The library?

Maybe it's been overdue for an embarrassingly
long time. Let's start way back in

one seventeen eighty nine. That's when
someone checked out two books from the New

York Society Library, the Law of
nations and a collection of works from Britain's

parliament, but they were never returned. Here's historian Theo Christophe telling the story

in a video from the Library of
Congress. Now, the other borrowers,

including Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton John
Jay, all returned their library books,

but one conspicuous borrower never return history
books and gives what he was not even

a paying member of the library and, unlike the Library of Congress today,

which is absolutely free. Back then, patrons had to in fact pay annual

membership. Should be able to check
out books. So let's help the libray

Congress. Doesn't change our policy now. That patron had an entry on October

ferve one thousand seven hundred and eighty
nine, which was recorded simply as president

in the space of the borrower.
The offender was none other than George Washington.

I don't know for sure, but
I'm guessing he wasn't penalized. Besides,

as the story and mentioned, library
policies changed over the years. Today

we're talking about libraries and one such
change that is spreading across the country because

it's important to communities and because it
has an important lesson about equity for every

part of government. Public libraries are
an essential hub in their neighborhoods. It's

a space where nobody's required to buy
anything. It offers classes, computer access

and books without a pay wall.
But when you fail to return checked out

materials, what happens? You could
be faced with a fine. Right,

well, not anymore. Late finds
for some might be a small price to

pay, but for others it creates
a permanent barrier. So on the show.

Today we are visiting a library system
that knows what happens when you take

late fees out of the equation.
Here's Emily Nanco, the go to correspondent

at next city to cover libraries.
All right, so there is no such

thing anymore as a late fee,
as that right at Brooklyn public libraries.

That is true. Yes, that
is crazy to me as someone who grew

up terrified of late fees. Right, me too. Yeah, HMM,

Avid Library user was. Yeah,
I grew up in libraries as well,

and the late fee is such a
I think a big part of that for

everyone who uses a library. But
there seems to be a shift in that

big cities are moving away from the
late fee. I'm seeing eliminating late fines

being described as a way to make
truly equitable access, and I'm I'm not

sure that that's clear why that would
create more equitable access to eliminate a fee.

Well, at least in Brooklyn,
what they were finding was a lot

of people who were losing library cards
due to late fees, which in Brooklyn

it was above fifteen dollars. Your
library card goes inactive. was young people

of Color, so the numbers were
showing that in equity. So that was

really clear and they started to address
it with a one time forgiveness to make

that go away, but realize it
was but a much deeper issue and also

just the idea that, you know, libraries are public, social, accessible

spaces. There we have few of
those in our society these days and to

attach something like a monetary fine to
that space and make people, anybody,

feel unwelcome because they can't pay,
I think there's just a shifting attitude around

what that means and really libraries leaning
into the accessibility and the value that they

have, as you know, open, accessible public spaces. New York City's

three public library systems announced last year
that the Brooklyn Public Library, then New

York Public Library and Queen's Public Library
would no longer charge late fees. When

they made that announcement in October,
they estimated four hundred thousand New Yorkers were

blocked from the library and of that
more than half were in high need communities.

In the Queen's Public Library System alone, the for communities with the highest

number of blocked cards all had median
incomes far below the borough average. You've

covered this before a lot. That
the definition of what it means to be

a library is expanding. So if
you feel shunned from the library, what

is it the people are really missing
out on now, because it's not just

books, oh my gosh, libraries
are really they have emerged as one of

the most important social and community hubs
in cities around the country or towns everywhere

in the country, because it's one
of the few remaining places you can a

public space, you can go in, you don't have to buy anything,

free computer access, obviously, free
book access. But you know, I'm

actually on the Friends Group of my
local library and night so I get to

see firsthand all of the community work
that happens as far as classes, youth

engagement, English language classes. I'm
actually reporting on a different story how libraries

have become a hub to help people
address warrants and and sort of low level

warrants and how they can sort of
create better community connections in a library than

opposed to a court house. So
they're just these sort of really incredible and

essential public spaces that we need a
value and maintain and fund. And yes,

I love writing about libraries, as
my next city collies can attest.

Do you think that what libraries have
learned about. This could apply to other

areas of cities. Oh, of
course. I mean I think that we

are seeing what it looks like to
live in a very punishment driven societies.

So the late fine at the library
seems like a little thing, but I

think it's part of something bigger and
you look at how fine fees, criminalizations,

punishments of all sorts have you know
who they're affecting in this country.

Marginalized people feel the rent of that. So to me it's part of a

larger issue that I think a lot
of cities are really questioning and trying to

tackle. So something as small as
a library saying let's shift our model,

I think can make a larger impact
or just show us that different ways are

possible and it's there are different ways
to engage with our community that don't have

to revolve around the fear of,
you know, not doing something on time,

tacking a fine to it and feeling
shunned from the library. The question

on everybody's minds might be how to
library still get their books on time without

charging a penalty. If eliminating penalties
seems counterintuitive, advocate say that might be

because we're so used to living in
a punitive society, but systems can be

reimagined and reinvented without punishment as the
default. After the break we will be

with Amy Michael, who is the
director of customer experience at the Brooklyn Public

Library System. They've researched the best
ways to get those books back on shelves

and she has some truly startling information
on what has happened since the library stop

charging late fees. Welcome back to
next city. This week we are in

Brooklyn, where the Public Library system
has stopped charging late fees. Amy Michael

is the director of customer experience at
the Brooklyn Public Library System. So how

does eliminating late fines provide equitable access? So think of it this way.

Late fines create an in equitable barrier
to library access because the way they work

is that they penalize everyone equally.
If you think about that, a late

fine is a way to penalize everybody
equally and because of that it creates inequities

and how people are impacted by late
fines. The whole point of the public

library is it's a democratic institution and
it's supposed to be for everybody. But

what typically happens time and time again, when you analyze the areas that have

the highest instances of being blocked from
libraries due to late fines, is that

the highest need families end up getting
restricted. And then, on top of

that, there has really been no
definitive evidence to show that punitive based finds

policies are in any way effective at
getting materials back on time. So it's

a longstanding practice in public libraries.
It's finally starting to see getting sunset,

basically, as libraries are waking up
to this fact that we've just been doing

business this way for so long,
but it actually has more of a negative

impact than a positive one. Yeah, longstanding practice, it seems like.

would be one of those things where
it's well, this is the way we've

always done it. Is there an
argument happening amongst the library community that you

know, whether or not to do
this, because there are some that obviously

haven't done a bit more and more. Yes, yeah, and Brooklyn,

along with New York public and Queen's
public, benefited from other urban libraries that

had done this before we did.
Benefited in the sense that they had done

some exhaustive research, sort of like
market analysis, whatever you want to call

it, in their decision to eliminate
late fines and then we also benefited from

the post period of the decision to
see how things played out after the fines

were eliminated. And I also don't
want to miss the opportunity to say that

all those has become a trend and
maybe the past five years or so with

big library systems, there are many, many smaller libraries who've been fine free

for years. Across the country.
School libraries do not charge late finds typically.

So we're seeing a sort of a
sea change in public libraries the past

couple of years, but we are
following many others and put it that way.

But anyways, the argument that we
make kind of goes like this.

So first of all we look at
who is being impacted by the policy.

So, for example, when we
pulled some numbers in two thousand and twenty

just in the borough of Brooklyn,
we had one hundred and forty four thousand

patrons who would have been blocked from
checkouts because they had exceeded that threshold of

fifteen dollars. And I say would
have many people, yes, so many

people, and people who are using
the library, they have a history of

use in the librar right. Yes, they were. At one point.

They were card holders and they have
a literally a block on their account.

So if they go to check out
materials, the computer beeps brant. So

of that number, one hundred and
forty four thousand, over Eighteenzero were children

and teens. We dug a little
deeper. We also saw that once patrons

exceed that fifteen dollar threshold, what
the majority of patrons did is nothing.

They would just let their cards expire. They would not actively try to reduce

the balance. Obviously some did,
but we looked at the behavior of our

card holders once we blocked them and
basically the behavior was well, guess that's

that. The Brooklyn Library system has
been fine free for months now and I

asked Amy Michael about how the change
is playing out by the numbers. There

are two things that we have been
able to see. So it's been about

six months since we officially went fine
free. So I had my data team

look at a few things. So
the first thing we saw is that we

do have people before we want find
free, that we're concerned that once you

go find free you're not going to
get as many books back. Right.

HMM. What's the incentive to bring
books back. But some people are still

quite hung up on the idea that
the the late finds does incenti. Eyes,

returns. So if that theory holds
true, you would expect over time,

our circulation statistics to show that the
rate of circulation is however, it

might be that the rate of returns
starts deviating from that right. You would

expect to see that over time you
would start to see a higher amount of

checkouts then returns, put it that
way. HMM. But we don't see

that at all, which is good. Our circulation is increasing. People are

coming back. In fact, the
month of March, the last full month

that we collected data, was the
highest month of circulation that we've seen since

August of two thousand and nineteen,
which got US everybody really excited. So

people are coming back to libraries.
All of this work that we're doing to

welcome people back is having a difference. So that's all good news. Circulation

is going up. That rate of
check INS is exactly the same. There's

almost no space between those lines there. Whatever way that line goes, the

returns is right there with it.
I mean that's amazing on its own right.

I mean the idea that you could
make this change in that they would

actually be more people using the library
and more books out than ever before and

coming back. Is Seems counterintuitive,
but a dream. Well, it's great.

Yeah, so I wanted to look
at a borough wide breakdown of WHO's

getting blocked and compare that to the
breakdown that we ran in two thousand and

twenty when we are getting ready to
make our proposal. MMM. So,

if you look at the borough wide
breakdown in two thousand and twenty, you

can see which communities have the highest
numbers of blocked patrons. So in Brooklyn

you talked about Queens. That those
communities in Brooklyn in two thousand and twenty,

where Brownsville, new lots, flatbush
can our see and East New York.

So those in our map where the
dark, dark blue areas. It

was very discouraging. So those are
the patrons that were blocked from our library,

could not use our services in two
thousand and twenty. And then now

the map is different. Those dark
blue areas have shifted to pretty much synchronize

with the neighborhoods that have the highest
circulation and then, as a result,

the neighborhood's most impacted by those build
charges are the neighborhoods that check out the

most books. The disparity based on
income has disappeared from the map, it

seems as though it has, which
is really lovely to see. Going fine

free is only the first step of
the journey. Eliminating one system means that

it has to be replaced with a
new one. So the Brooklyn Public Library

system has been implementing creative ways to
get their materials back on time, if

possible. After the break we will
talk about some of the ways the Brooklyn

Public Library has been able to get
its books returned on time without charging late

fees. Welcome back to next city. The Brooklyn Public Library System has eliminated

its use of late feeds. But
what are they doing to get their books

returned on time? So what are
we doing, or what do we want

to do, and what's working?
So the first big thing that we've done,

which is very difficult to track the
effectiveness of, is we've simply installed

more overnight book drops. It's just
common sense that if you give people more

opportunities to return their materials, you
could expect that more people use them.

More people use them right. Yeah, so we have sixty branches and broken

public library we entered the pandemic in
March two thousand and twenty and thirteen of

our branches had book drops. Oh
Wow, okay, but they were only

used as like an alternate to returning
the book in the branch. So,

in other words, they weren't being
utilized as overnight book drops. They were

locked. You just don't want to
come inside, you can use this drop,

but not if we're not there.
Yeah, but they were locked in

the branch was closed. HMM.
Right. So we started the pandemic with

thirteen book drops and we switch them
to be overnight book drops and on top

of that we installed another thirteen book
drops and then a few months later we

installed another thirteen. So in two
years the library tripled, will more than

tripled, the number of overnight book
drops that we have in our system.

And we looked carefully at the the
map and we try to when we were

installing them, we really tried to
make sure we were not leaving really big

gaps. The goal is to one
day have book drops at a hundred percent

of the branches. The library is
also increasing its communication with patrons and it's

implementing a system of notifications so a
patron will receive up to four notices before

any finds are ever applied. These
notices are available in a variety of formats

and languages to increase accessibility. We
talking about phone, email, text.

Depends on preference. So you can
get reminders from the library either by email,

SMS or a rogue call. What
we've also done, particularly with the

emails, is we have as you
start getting your next notice, we increasingly

are adding more information about what will
happen. HMM, should should the item

remain over due? So we've just
cleaned up the language. We try to

make it more friendly. Just be
a little bit more upfront about the policy

and say like, if you do
not return this book in two weeks,

you can aspect this to happen and
if this happens, this is all you

have to do. All you have
to do is bring the book back.

No fine story about just bring book
back right, it's all right. For

the emails, we have also added
for additional languages Spanish, Russian, Chinese

and Creole, which in Brooklyn are
top for spoken languages. So obviously not

everybody who lives in Brooklyn speaks English. We are making it easier to unlock

digital access as soon as you apply
for a library card. And of course,

digital materials don't have any penalties whatsoever. They're never overdo they always get

returned on time. So when you
get the library card, doing a better

job of saying, by the way, this is how it works when you

borrow materials at the library. Just
making sure you understand our policies and our

procedures. And it's not that we
didn't do that. I do think,

to be completely honest, that we
issue so many library cards every day it's

easy to fall into the pattern of
issuing the card and having the patron say

thank you and then leave and sort
of making that assumption that that person knows

how the library works. So in
my mind it's not really fair to to

build somebody later if you haven't made
a good faith effort to help them understand

what happens when something is overdue.
Our libraries are microcosm for how things can

work in society. So if we
can prioritize helping over punishing in libraries,

maybe we can do it on a
larger scale in your city. I asked

Amy Michael whether the library has lessons
to offer other parts of government and of

course she recommended some reading material.
Well, in recent years, and this

is not my area of expertise,
but in recent years it does seem that

municipalities are starting to look at eliminating
fines and other punitive measures and other sectors.

So, for example, you can
look into what San Francisco Library released

in January of two thousand nine is
called long overdue, eliminating fines on overdue

materials to improve access to San Francisco
Public Library and an issuing this report,

San Francisco Public Library partnered with an
organization called the Financial Justice Project, and

San Francisco says that they're the first
city in the nation to launch like an

independent organization to assess how fines and
fees impact the city's residents, in particular

low income residents, and on the
other communities of color. So you can

look at the financial justice projects online
and see the work that they're doing in

eradicating this practice and other areas of
doing city business. And then, similarly,

it seems like inspired by what San
Francisco did, the New York City

Controller started doing something similar. So
they issued a white paper in a few

months later, in September of two
thousand and nineteen, called fines fees and

fairness, how monetary charges drive in
equity in New York City's criminal justice system.

And I'll sort of all the administrative
fees that would crop up everywhere in

the criminal justice system, tiling,
paperwork fees and phone call fees and,

yeah, even parking fees. I
know they've done in North Carolina yet parking

fees. Bail. They're even looking
at bail right, yeah, cash bail

right. We hope you enjoyed this
episode of next city, a show about

change makers and their stories. Together
we can spread good ideas from one city

to the next city. Thank you
for listening this week. Thank you to

reporter Emily Nanko. Thank you to
our guests, to Amy Michael From the

Brooklyn Public Library System. Our audio
producer is Silvana Ocala, our script writer

is Francesca Manlin, our executive producers
are Tyler Neilsen and Ryan Tillotson, and

I'm Lucas Grimly, executive director of
next city. By the way, next

city is a news organization with a
nonprofit model. If you like what we're

doing here, please consider pitching in
to support our work. visit next city

dot Org. Slash membership to make
a donation. We would love to hear

any feedback from our listeners. Please
feel free to email us at Info at

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Next City
Join Lucas Grindley, executive director at Next City, where we believe journalists have the power to amplify solutions and spread workable ideas. Each week Lucas will... View More




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