Dawn Wacek

Dawn Wacek: A librarian's case against overdue book fines

Libraries have the power to create a better world; they connect communities, promote literacy and spark lifelong learners. But there's one thing that keeps people away: the fear of overdue book fines. In this thought-provoking talk, librarian Dawn Wacek makes the case that fines don't actually do what we think they do. What if your library just ... stopped asking for them altogether?


Hello, friends. I'm happy to see all of you here today. This is actually exactly what I say to the people who visit us at the La Crosse Public Library. And I say it because I mean it. The children who come into our library are my friends in that I care about their needs and their futures. I want them to be happy and successful. I hope that they'll find great books or a movie that delights them. Or the solution to a tricky problem.

Libraries in general have this wonderful reputation of really caring about our communities. We put out mission statements and statements of purpose that say that we connect our community to the broader world. We engage minds, we create lifelong learners. And these ideals are really important to us as libraries, because we know the power they have to create a better world. A more connected world, a more engaged and empathetic world. Books have power, information has power. And for the powerless in our communities, being able to connect to that is even more important.

In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley published a study that found that working class families and those being served by welfare experience what we now refer to as the "30 million word gap." Essentially, what they learned is that children in these families are hearing so many fewer words each day that by the time they are three years old, there's this enormous disparity in their learned language. And that gap in words follows them as they enter school, and it results in later reading, poorer reading skills, a lack of success overall. Children need to hear words every day and they need to hear not just our day-to-day conversation, they have to hear rare words: those outside the common lexicon we share, of around 10,000.

I'm going to read you a short snippet from a children's book by one of our favorite authors in the children's room, Eric Carle. Some of you might know his work "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." But this is from "'Slowly, Slowly, Slowly,' said the Sloth."

"Finally, the sloth replied, 'It is true that I am slow, quiet and boring. I am lackadaisical, I dawdle and I dillydally. I am also unflappable, languid, stoic, impassive, sluggish, lethargic, placid, calm, mellow, laid-back and, well, slothful! I am relaxed and tranquil, and I like to live in peace. But I am not lazy.' Then the sloth yawned and said, 'That's just how I am. I like to do things slowly, slowly, slowly.'" So you can see from this very brief example from one book in our library how Eric Carle used 20 different words to get the same idea across to children.

Now we know that a lot of the families visiting us at the library, a lot of our friends, are struggling financially. We know that some of them are living in poverty, and don't have enough to eat or anywhere safe to live. We know that our friend James, who comes in after school and is staying at a local shelter, isn't reading at grade level and has probably never read at grade level. We know we have that 30 million word gap and a corresponding achievement gap by the time kids enter the third grade, both of which directly correlate to income level.

So what's the responsibility of libraries in addressing these gaps? How can we help our friends be more successful, more educated and some day, better global citizens? It starts with ensuring free and equitable access to everything libraries offer them. Books level the playing field by exposing children of every socioeconomic background to words. At the library, we provide programs that are based on the five tenants of early literacy: playing, singing, talking, reading and writing. We offer programs for adults on computer classes and job-skills training. Business start-ups. We do all of this great work for our community members and at the same time, we counteract it by charging fines and fees of our patrons.

Today in La Crosse, 10,000 of our users are unable to check out library materials because of fines and fees. If we narrow in on our neighborhoods experiencing the most poverty, those where 82 percent of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged, the number rises to 23 percent of the neighborhood. And these are local numbers, it's true, but they hold true nationwide. In libraries across the country that charge fines, the poorest neighborhoods have the most number of people blocked from use. In fact, the Colorado State Library was so worried about this, they published a white paper and they stated unequivocally that it's the fear of fines that keeps poor families out of libraries.

A colleague of mine took a ride in a Lyft in Atlanta last year, and he started chatting with his driver about libraries, as we do. And she told him she grew up visiting her local library, she loved it. But now that she's a parent with three children of her own, there's no way she would allow them to get a library card, because of the strict deadlines libraries impose. She said, "It would be like another credit card that I can't pay."

Meanwhile, when other libraries have experimented with eliminating fines, like one in San Rafael that took away children's fines, they had a 126-percent increase in child card applications within the first few months. When people aren't afraid of the fines they might accrue, they line up to access what we have to offer. So what are we telling people, then? We have these two disparate ideas.

On the one hand, we're champions of democracy and we claim that we're there so that every citizen can educate themselves. We're advocates for the power early literacy has to reduce that achievement gap and eliminate the word gap. We tell people, "We're here to help you." On the other hand, if you're struggling financially, and you make a mistake, the kind of mistake that anyone in this room could make -- your tote bag that belongs to the library sits by your back door for a couple of weeks longer than it should, you lose a CD, you spill your coffee on a book, suddenly, we're not here for you so much anymore, because if that happens, we're going to make you pay for it. And if you can't pay for it, you're out of luck.

I have been a librarian for a lot of years. And in the past few years, I myself have paid over 500 dollars in late fines. Now, you might wonder why, I mean, I'm there every day, and I certainly know how the system works. But like all of our friends at the library, I am busy, I lose track of things, my house is sometimes messy, and I have lost a DVD or two under the sofa. And I have been fortunate enough to be able to pay that 500 dollars over the last several years. If not happily, I at least had the means to do it. So is that fair and equitable service if some of us can pay our fines and continue to operate as we always have, and others of us make one mistake and no longer are welcome back? It's simply not.

Now, why would we continue to operate under a model that hurts our most vulnerable patrons the most? There are reasons. There are reasons like responsibility. There are some libraries that really feel that it's our job to teach people responsibility. And they haven't figured out that there might be ways to do that that don't equate to dollars. There's also this idea that we share the resources collectively in a community, and so we have to take turns. If I keep my "My Little Pony" movie for too long, and somebody else wants to watch it, it's not fair. And then, there's the money. Community members often love their libraries, and they don't want us to not be able to sustain the services we offer.

Luckily, we can address all of these things in a variety of ways without scaring away our most vulnerable populations. Some libraries have gone to a Netflix model. You might be familiar with this: you check things out, when you're done with them, you return them. If you don't return them, you can't check more things out, but once you do, it's all forgiven, it's fine. You can check out again. Others continue to charge fines, but they want to offer alternatives to their library patrons, and so they do things like food for fines, where you bring in canned goods, or read away your fines, where you can read off your fines. There's even another library in Wisconsin that offers scratch-off tickets at their counter, so you can scratch off and get 10 or 20 percent off your fines that day. And there are amnesty days. One day a year, you bring back your late materials and all is forgiven. There was a library in San Francisco that did an amnesty day last year, and they welcomed back 5,000 users who had been blocked. That same day, they received more than 700,000 items that were overdue. Among them was one book that was 100 years overdue.

So I know that sounds ridiculous, but I know from experience that people will stay away from the library rather than face the authority of the librarian when they have late items. As Michael might have mentioned, I've been a librarian for 15 years and my mom hasn't been in a library in decades, because when she was young, she lost a book.

So, these are great baby steps. But they don't go far enough, because they make people jump through hoops. They have to come on the right days, at the right times. They might have to have extra food to share. They want to read away their fines, they need to be literate. If we want people to use the library again, we should just get rid of fines altogether.

Now, you might think I've forgotten a money piece, where we need to finance libraries, right? But there's a couple of things to consider when we think about how fines function in library budgets. The first is that fines have never been a stable source of revenue. They've always fluctuated, and in fact, they've continued to go down over the last few decades. When the recession hit, especially, people's ability to pay was hit, as well. So for a lot of those 10,000 friends that we've got at the library that aren't able to use it, they might never be able to pay us. When we talk about eliminating their fines, we're not losing money so much as the idea of money. And thirdly, you might be surprised to know fines on average, nationally, are about one and a half percent of a library's operating budget. Now that can still be a lot of money. If you're looking at a large library or a large library system, the dollar amount can be high. But it's an achievable cut for most libraries to absorb.

And finally, and maybe most importantly, fines cost us money to collect. When you start to factor in all of the ways that we collect fines, supplies like mailers that we send out to remind people of their fines, services, like collections management services, even telephone and email notifications can cost libraries money. And staff time is a huge cost for libraries. So that our frontline staff is standing there, talking to people about their fines, sometimes arguing with people about fines. When we eliminate all of those pieces, if we got rid of fines, we might actually save money in our libraries. Or at the very least, we would be able to reallocate our staff time to pursuits that better fit those missions we talked about.

The other thing I want everybody to come away understanding is that fines don't actually work to do what we think they do. The debate about fines -- whether we should fine, how much we should fine, it isn't new. We've been talking about it for almost 100 years. As long as that book was overdue. Study after study has shown that the reason libraries fine is because of strongly held beliefs about the effectiveness of getting materials back on time backed by no evidence. Basically, we fine because we've always fined. So, the best option for your libraries is to put their mission first. And they will do that if their community members ask it of them.

When you leave here, I hope you'll visit your public library and talk to your librarians, talk to your neighbors and community members who serve on library boards. Tell them that you know how important literacy is to everyone in your community. That if our libraries are truly for everyone, that they have to get rid of fines and embrace their entire community.

Thank you.

(Applause)