Starting next spring, the Los Angeles Public Library will join a growing number of library systems that have eliminated late fees on overdue books. Late fees have been around almost as long as public libraries themselves and have been relied on for generations as the best way to discourage borrowers from keeping books past their due dates. But librarians increasingly see the penalties as a barrier to borrowing for young and low-income patrons — among the people most likely to benefit from the public library system.

Libraries should be a place of wonder, exploration and possibility. They are common spaces where everyone, regardless of income or social status, is welcome to learn. Especially at a time when facts are in dispute and social media is a minefield of misinformation, there is a civic interest in making books and journalism and research materials as accessible as possible.

If the fear of racking up late fees deters would-be readers from borrowing books, then such penalties undermine the purpose of public libraries and should be gone.

The movement to eliminate library late fees is part of a larger reconsideration of how penalties and punishments often have a disproportionate effect on the poor — and can make it harder for people to climb out of poverty.

Unaffordable fines imposed for minor traffic and parking offenses can lead to financial ruin for low-income drivers, or cause them to lose their cars or land in jail if they can’t pay the exorbitant penalties. States have begun to pass laws banning “lunch shaming.” That’s when kids can’t get meals or participate in extracurricular activities because their parents haven’t paid off their lunch debts; anecdotal reporting suggests that hungry kids are more likely to forgo a meal than risk embarrassment in front of their peers.

As for libraries, surveys have shown that borrowers, regardless of income, miss due dates at similar rates. But while late fees feel relatively insignificant to many borrowers, they can pose a financial burden to low-income users. And if they’re not paid up, borrowers often are blocked from using the library system. The San Diego Public Library decided to erase outstanding debts and eliminate late fees after a study showed that nearly half of the library’s patrons with blocked accounts lived in two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The fines particularly are problematic for parents with young children who love to check out stacks of picture books. It’s easy for busy parents to forget to return books on time. The late fees can add up quickly, not to mention the penalties on top of the replacement cost if a book gets lost. If parents are afraid to borrow books lest they rack up late fees, then children lose the early exposure to books that can lead to a lifelong love of reading.

And for what? Libraries are a public good and they deserve to be respected and fairly shared by all patrons — no matter their ability to pay late fees.

Los Angeles Times