This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A father can go into a Salt Lake City library, gather his kids around him, and entertain them with a rousing rendition of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl. In so doing, he could simultaneously be reading down his kids' library fines at the rate of 10 cents per child per minute. But soon, those fines may be a thing of the past.
Salt Lake City Library officials recently presented a budget to the City Council proposing a property tax hike. The proposed increase would pay for renovations of older branches, salary increases and additional security at the main branch, including additional staff to stand outside restrooms.
Tax increases, though, are hardly ever popular. To sweeten the pot, the library officials also proposed elimination of late fines.
Library fines have operated as a barrier to access by alienating those who cannot pay, precisely the households which rely on libraries rather than bookstores to provide their children with the books that will open their minds.
Children especially are affected by a system that penalizes them for checking out a book but forgetting to return it on a date certain. Many parents deny requests to check out books in fear of racking up substantial fines.
Adults know that books and newspapers cost money to write and produce. But anything that discourages young children from reading is not worth the small amount of revenue that overdue fines bring to the library.
Librarians also suffer from the punitive fine system because it creates an unnecessarily negative environment. It is awkward to talk to someone about a debt they owe. Patrons with outstanding fines often stay away from the library altogether, or keep the book anyway because their fines have already totaled the cost of the book. Some even view fines as a double taxation on citizens, as their tax monies are already used to fund the library.
Again, if losing the fine revenue will not have much impact on the bottom line, and might even be revenue neutral after a few years, the goodwill created in alleviating the fine system is worth the limited cost.
For what, in fact, is a public library's purpose? Knowledge is power. And libraries are often the portal to this power, especially for those with limited means. The Great Library of Alexandria, built in Egypt around 300 B.C., was built largely to show off the wealth of Egypt. Where is our wealth? As Dahl said,
"So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books."