Libraries’ forgiveness is a fine solution

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The temptation to harrumph grows as the years pass and times change.

One may be forgiven for viewing the recent move by our local libraries to end the age-old tradition of fining patrons for returning materials late as the fourth horseman of the apocalypse — further evidence, inasmuch as it’s needed, that the barbarians are at the gate, the era of personal responsibility is over and the world is going to hell in a book binder.

Except for one thing: The idea that fines actually dissuade the tardy return of books to the library evidently doesn’t hold water. Librarians across the board, and, yes, we looked it up, say that the majority of borrowers — more than 80 percent — follow the rules and return the items they borrowed on time. The remaining borrowers are likely to be late regardless of whether they’re fined.

The money late fines generate is about $11.2 million nationwide, Library Journal reports. One local library said the move will “cost” about $18,000 in revenue. That amounts to roughly $350 a week. While that’s hardly a sum to dismiss as mere peanuts, eliminating fines may actually have a net positive impact on the bottom line, as collecting them likely costs more than they bring in.

Librarians as a group might be soft-spoken, but in our experience they tend to be hyperpassionate about their mission. They seem unanimous in their belief that they’d rather have patrons actually reading books than worrying about the calendar. We can’t disagree with that.

Some local libraries already don’t fine patrons for being late — many stopped fining kids years ago — and the move to end fines is a growing trend across the country. Many libraries ultimately wind up waiving the fines anyway: And that’s a good thing if you happen to be Robert Walpole.

Walpole borrowed a volume from Sidney Sussex College in 1668. It wasn’t returned for 288 years — with no fine collected.

Emily Sims wasn’t so lucky. In 2002, she found a book of poetry her mother had checked out and was obliged to write a check to an Illinois library for $345.14, the largest library fine on record, according to Guinness. Today, most libraries cap late fees at an arbitrary amount, like $10, or at the cost of replacing the item.

We feel a compunction to support whatever it takes to persuade people to go to the library with their families and to read, read, read. Some people, librarians contend, avoid libraries altogether out of fear they or their children will rack up fines that don’t fit into tight household budgets. That’s worth avoiding. We’re jazzed about the prospect of all those folks heading back to the library, fines duly forgiven.

Reading is superfood for the brain, and those who habitually pick up books, even if they read for only a few minutes each day, tend to score better on just about every metric experts track. Reading’s benefits to the young, the old and everyone in-between can’t be overstated.

We’re all well advised to focus not on the way things were but on the way things are. We hate to miss an opportunity to kvetch about auld lang syne, but times do change, and we’ll take a pass today. Just stay off our lawn, huh?

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