MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
On the show today, making amends, how forgiveness can help us carve a new path toward addressing inequality, even when it comes to something that seems small, like library fines.
DAWN WACEK: I don't think they work.
ZOMORODI: This is Dawn Wacek.
WACEK: It's supposed to be a deterrent. People are supposedly - you know, they'll know ahead of time that they would be fined if they were late, and then they won't be late. And it took until really recently for us to think about - is it working? You know, does it make a difference in how people behave?
ZOMORODI: Dawn is a librarian in Wisconsin.
WACEK: At the La Crosse Public Library.
ZOMORODI: And she says what was meant as a simple deterrent can have pretty big consequences.
WACEK: So I'll use my own library as an example because it's fairly typical. In the past, we would charge 10 cents a day, which sounds reasonable, unless you have 20 picture books checked out and...
WACEK: ...They're late by a week or two weeks. What would happen is, at the point where a patron owed $10 or more, they no longer have access to materials in the library. They're just blocked. And so what we saw happening was people who had disposable income would come in and they would pay their $10 or their $20 or their $50 or whatever it might be, and they would go on with their lives. And those who don't have that money available to them would not come back. That's where you see it really add up and really impact people's lives and especially the people we want to serve most.
ZOMORODI: Here's more from Dawn Wacek from the TED stage.
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WACEK: 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. Books level the playing field by exposing children of every socioeconomic background to words. At the library, 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. Now, why would we continue to operate under a model that hurts our most vulnerable patrons the most?
ZOMORODI: So what would you prefer to see?
WACEK: I would prefer to see late fees go away entirely.
WACEK: Altogether, everywhere - just no more. What we've done here in La Crosse and what a lot of these libraries that are eliminating fines now are doing is we've said, we're not going to charge you any late fines. If you bring the items back, you're forgiven and you can check out as much as you want again. And that seems to be really the only incentive people need to get their things back because they want access to everything we have to offer them.
ZOMORODI: You don't think that people would just take books out and not be fearful of forgetting to return them - that they just hold onto them and - I mean, if there's no repercussions, what's the difference?
WACEK: Yeah. So what we are seeing is that people are still bringing them back. They still want to check more things out, and so they come back. But they aren't as fearful about fines.
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WACEK: You know, they still could lose an item and have to pay for it somehow. But we just try to make people feel as comfortable as possible when that situation comes up.
ZOMORODI: When we come back, we'll hear more from Dawn Wacek about eliminating library fines. On the show today, making amends. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, making amends, ideas on how we can be more forgiving in our prisons, our schools and our libraries. We were just hearing from librarian Dawn Wacek on why she thinks we should eliminate overdue book fines. Here she is again from the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
WACEK: When other libraries have experimented with eliminating fines like one in San Rafael that took away children's fines, they had 126% 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. Now, you might think I've forgotten that money piece where we need to finance libraries, right? But 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. You might be surprised to know fines on average nationally are about 1.5% 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.
What we found is that we were spending so much money to collect fines. You know, we were spending all this staff time. We were spending money on mailers. We were spending money on a collection agency. And when we eliminated all of that, some of that kind of balanced out. And then what we did is we said, OK, these staff members now have time for other kinds of things, maybe more mission-centric work that they can do.
ZOMORODI: So you're saying that when the punitive model was diminished, the amount of time spent enforcing it was also diminished. And that freed the librarians up to do things that actually increased the outreach to get more people to come to the library.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
WACEK: 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 a hundred years. 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.
ZOMORODI: I mean, that seems like a pretty good argument.
ZOMORODI: How have people responded to your sort of mission to get rid of fines?
WACEK: You know, I feel like there's always people who feel like no people have to be punished because they've messed up, right? This is the rule. If you can't follow the rule, you have to be punished. And money is the way we punish people. But lots of people are really excited by this idea. You know, this can work. It's working all over the country little by little.
ZOMORODI: Do you think that there is sort of more broadly a bigger conversation about rethinking this punitive model and thinking more restoratively? Simply because not only is it good in this instance for the people who want to take out the books, but as you explain it, it actually can work better for the librarians and their staff as well.
WACEK: Yeah. I feel like it's a little bit connected too to this idea of libraries being for everybody. More and more libraries are trying to make sure that their staff reflects their community in all kinds of ways. And there's a broader conversation about how we make sure that libraries stay relevant, and not just relevant to middle-class white Americans but to everybody that we serve. And so when we talk about that, those punitive models really throw up such a barrier for people. Our purpose is to get information, materials of every kind out into our community and make sure that they have access to that. And so if that's our purpose, then creating these fines as a deterrent just really goes against everything we stand for.
ZOMORODI: That's Dawn Wacek. She's the youth services manager of the La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Oh, and by the way, if you checked out library items before the pandemic hit, chances are your overdue fines have been waived.
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