Few milestones are more meaningful than a family’s first visit to a library. For my twin sons, it took place just before the pandemic when we visited our local Manhattan branch and the boys checked out a half dozen books, including “Welcome to Shape School” and “The Whale in My Swimming Pool.”
Yet, due to kiddy messiness and a serious lack of parental oversight, the books went missing. For more than a year, I avoided the library out of fear of the late fees — and possible lectures — I knew were coming.
Finally, I knew we had to face the music. Last September, I turned up at the branch with my little ones and a wad of cash expecting to pay big time for our mistake. But rather than being hit with hundreds of dollars in late fees, the librarian told me that late fees no longer exist.
“We did away with them last year,” she said. And with that I was off the hook. There were no consequences for losing something that was clearly not my own.
Rather than feeling relieved, I felt like a fraud, especially in front of my boys. Having spent hours explaining to them how libraries work, they were under the impression that library books, unlike store-bought books, demand a certain level of responsibility. Check them out and keep them safe or you’ll wind up like your doofus dad — owing money if they’re lost or damaged or late. At least that’s how I’d been raised.
Waiving late fees doesn’t just get negligent borrowers off the hook. It also means a loss of cold, hard cash for the libraries themselves. In 2019, public libraries in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens collected some $3 million in late fees, while those who owed more than $15 in fines were barred from checking out additional books (there were 400,000 such folks citywide pre-amnesty, according to the NYPL). Although the city’s library system remains surprisingly well-funded — and will actually receive a budget increase next year — in this moment of severe citywide fiscal austerity, $3 million could certainly come in handy somewhere in our five boroughs.
But library funding isn’t the biggest problem. The real issue is messaging. Today, my six-year-olds are finally grasping the concept of accountability. “Actions have consequences,” they’ve become fond of saying to each another. Yet they’re growing up in a world where less accountability is expected from them. And because their worlds are still so sweetly small, the loss of this personal responsibility at the library feels particularly disheartening.
New York is not the only major city to do away with late fees. Nashville kicked off the trend in 2017 followed by Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco two years later. The thinking, library bigwigs say, is that ending penalties will not only boost visitor numbers, but a return of books hidden in homes for years by people, much like myself, too ashamed to bring them back. That thinking has proved true here in New York, where nearly 90,000 overdue books were returned to branches citywide — some originally checked out more than 50 years ago (visitor numbers have also spiked by up to 15%, depending on the borough).
Fee-free libraries have now, according to reports, become more “accessible” than ever, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. But there is a negative flipside to all this. Access without accountability often doesn’t turn out well — particularly in major urban areas.
A more extreme example is San Francisco, which opened drug “treatment” centers to provide addicts with “access” to food, showers and counseling. But the center quickly became a site of drug use rather than treatment as it became clear that addicts faced little to no consequence for their actions. The results: Of the 50,000 users who visited during the first part of this year, a mere 38 were connected to treatment centers, while many users have actually overdosed while there. Unsurprisingly, the $22 million site will close this month.
A similar spirt courses through New York State’s contentious bail-reform measures. Rather than take advantage of the opportunities for freedom and reform provided by the laws —which limit bail to the most serious crimes — some 20% of those busted for theft or burglary commit new crimes less than 60 days later.
Of course, larceny and drug abuse are a long slide away from late library books. But both are emblematic of a culture of unaccountability that has increasingly become normalized across our society. Which is why I haven’t yet told my sons they’re not actually required to return their library books. Having just taught them to respect the notions of accountability and consequences, I don’t have the heart to tell them that, for many grown-ups, those ideals no longer seem to matter.
David Kaufman is an editor and columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org