The Free Library of Philadelphia’s late fees are a “regressive financial penalty” that hit the city’s low-income neighborhoods the hardest, a city legislator says.
Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, a Democrat, said library fines set up barriers to accessing educational resources and services. Even minimal fines drive people away, so she wants them to become a thing of the past.
“How many readers, young readers, families does [the library] lose because people get discouraged when they know they can’t afford to pay those fines?” she asked.
On Thursday, City Council passed a resolution, put forward by Parker, for a council committee to explore eliminating all library fines and debts.
Library officials are expected to testify at the hearing, which will examine what demographics and neighborhoods are impacted by library fines and debts, among other issues. Parker expected to hold a hearing before City Council’s final session on Dec. 12.
Kaitlyn Foti, a spokeswoman for the library, said in an email that library and city officials have been investigating the logistics of implementing a fine-free system for the past year.
“We have been in conversation with the Managing Director [Brian Abernathy] and Mayor’s Office about these matters, and welcome the conversation with City Council to bring more people to the table discussing this possibility,” Foti said.
If City Council and library officials decide to eliminate fines and fees for some or all of the library’s patrons, Philadelphia would join more than 200 municipalities that have already done so.
Chicago became the largest city in the nation to abolish library late fees and erase patrons’ debts this week, following San Francisco in September.
Fine-free libraries have been around for decades but calls for reform have grown in recent years, says Paul Negron, a spokesman the nonprofit Urban Libraries Council, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
More major cities have found that small library fines were blocking patrons from low-income households from accessing services, Negron said.
Data from Chicago’s library system found that fines do not affect all communities equally. In Chicago’s South District, home to communities of color and many living in poverty, 1 in 3 library cardholders could not check out books due to fines. That figure dropped to 1 in 6 cardholders in Chicago’s more affluent North District.
Eliminating the fines not only draws people back to libraries but builds goodwill toward a public institution, Negron said.