by Pete Mazzaccaro

In the constantly churning cycle of news, one could be forgiven to have missed the announcement last week that the Free Library of Philadelphia had done away with the late fine – a fine charged to card holders who fail to return books on time.

As someone who has used libraries my whole life, I never would have considered an alternative to the only system I’ve ever known. Borrowing books always came with the threat that a forgotten due date would cost money. It wasn’t hard to rack up substantial fines if you borrowed multiple books. And if you borrowed movies with $1-a-day late fines, forgetfulness could really cost you.

I’m clearly not alone. Many people in the city have failed to return books, and fear of hefty fines has kept them away from the library to avoid the reckoning of a late charge. Some 88,000 library card holders currently have overdue books, movies or other media, according to library president Siobhan A. Reardon. The library’s move invites these people back without penalty. And that’s a good thing.

The rationale for eliminating the late fine is pretty straight forward. Those fines are particularly onerous to the poor, which represent a large part of Philadelphia’s population. And while those fines have accounted for approximately $420,000 annually for the library, they do not work. Library patrons facing fines simply don’t return items. In other cities where fines were eliminated, return rates jumped. In Chicago, return rates rose by 240 percent following the elimination of the city’s late fines.

“It’s going to be a positive change in many ways,” Reardon told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. “I’m so proud that we’ll be one of the largest library systems in the country to eliminate this penalty.”

While there has been some hand wringing that the elimination of the traditional late fine is a further erosion of personal responsibility, it’s worth noting that the new system is not a lending free-for-all. Anyone who fails to return material to the library on time will be reminded via email and their card will be blocked from borrowing more material. After 30 days, borrowed material will be considered lost and must be returned, paid for or replaced before the cardholder’s privileges are restored.

The facts, particularly the response similar moves have had in other cities, point to this as being a very smart move for the library system. Today, there should really be no barrier between the library’s books and those looking to borrow. I particularly empathize with those who have children who’ve taken out books and forgotten them. I’ve paid my fair share of fines for those books. By eliminating late fines, there’s no fiscal penalty for people to return those books. And that’s the way it should be.