greensboro public library (copy)

You may recall the “Seinfeld” episode about the overdue book.

The public library comes after Jerry for a copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” which it alleges Jerry checked out in 1971 and never returned.

A New York “library cop” — a hard-nosed, J. Edgar Hoover-type named Bookman (after all, this is “Seinfeld”) — pursues Jerry as if he’s knocked over a bank. Jerry seeks out an old girlfriend as a witness who can prove his innocence and, well, yada , yada, yada …

Judging from some of your calls and letters, it appears that some of you may be channeling your inner Bookman these days. At issue is the Greensboro Public Library’s elimination of fines for overdue books and other library materials.

Library leaders came up with the idea after City Manager David Parrish asked various departments to suggest ways to change or end city policies and procedures that may create social and racial inequities.

The new rule takes effect on Saturday and includes forgiveness of existing fines. Public Library Director Brigitte Blanton said the fines may discourage residents who could benefit the most from using the library.

Some readers took issue with the change, saying it rewards scofflaws at the expense of other taxpayers and that it encourages abuse of the library’s requirement that all checked-out materials must be returned.

In a year of tight budgets, the library also will lose a not-insignificant source of revenue. The library collected $127,000 in fines for the fiscal year 2018-2019.

But if $127,000 promotes more reading and access to educational materials in Greensboro, especially among young people, it seems like a worthy trade-off to us.

And, after all, the city does spend several times that amount for curbside leaf collection for residents who choose not to rake and bag their leaves (at the expense of residents who do).

Blanton also says the fines have little deterrent effect.

Levying fines is “punitive and it does not increase the materials that are coming back,” Blanton told the News & Record.

Further, the city’s vibrant, eight-branch library system has a long tradition of promoting reading and literacy to any and all citizens, regardless of their financial means. This continues that legacy.

More broadly, the debate over the pros and cons of fines is hardly new and continues among librarians across the country, with passionate voices on both sides. Some libraries charge fines, some don’t. Others charge fines only for adult materials.

“Fines absolutely discourage people from using the library,” Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael (Calif.) Public Library, said in a 2018 interview in American Libraries magazine, “especially those in the community who could most benefit from library services. What we see in our community is that people slowly rack up overdue fines over time — hitting the $10 maximum, after which point the account is locked until the amount owed is brought under $10 — and then simply stop using the library.”

She adds: “This happens across age groups, but predominantly in those neighborhoods that are socioeconomically disadvantaged. This results in the people with the least money in our community— the ones who need a library the most — not being able to use the library.”

Will some people abuse the city’s kindness? Probably.

But the policy seems worth a try. And if it doesn’t work, the library always could reverse course.

So, cool it for now, Detective Bookman. Let’s see where this story takes us.

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