Council lets Free Library eliminate children's fines

Posted: May 30, 2013

The Free Library of Philadelphia's plan to eliminate late fees for children - a move recommended by librarians to prevent cutting off poor kids from library services - is set to begin July 1 after a City Council committee Wednesday defeated a bill that would have thwarted it.

Councilman David Oh, the primary sponsor, said about $70,000 of the $400,000 in late fees collected last year came from children's books and materials. He said individual librarians had the freedom to forgive late fees if they believe families cannot afford to pay - although a librarian who later testified disputed that she had that power.

"I do understand about poverty," Oh said. "But it seems to me the people who are paying this $70,000 are people like myself, who understand that when my daughter takes something out and it's late, we're going to pay."

Oh, who called the imposition of fines a necessary life lesson for children, amended the bill Wednesday to dedicate fines collected from overdue children's books to enhance library technology and youth programming. He said he did not understand how the system could forgo that money, given recent budget cuts.

"Why would the library not collect this money from people who aren't complaining about it?" he asked.

Oh was the only member of Council's Parks and Recreation Committee who appeared to vote in favor of the bill in a voice vote.

Robert Heim, chair of the Free Library's board of trustees, said there needed to be a balance between Oh's goal to teach children responsibility and the needs of poor children. He urged the committee to reject the bill.

"We have strong concerns about the efficacy, impact, and both short- and long-term implications of this bill," he said.

The "frontline" librarians in neighborhood branches recommended the change, Heim said, because poor children often are saddled with responsibilities at home and may be late returning library material for "a myriad of other reasons" beyond their control.

Cutting off young readers' access to library material, Heim said, would be disastrous. Once the library loses young readers, he said, it is difficult to bring them back to the world of books.

Heim also noted that there are consequences for children with overdue books - they aren't able to borrow more, though they are free to read and use other resources in the library. The policy change has been adopted in New York, San Francisco, and other cities.

The library's annual budget is about $40 million.

Contact Troy Graham

at 215-854-2730 or

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