This is the saddest library story I’ve ever read. The headline is bland: “For young readers, a chance to work off library debt.” We could also call it Indentured servitude @ your library. Or just the kind of thing poor kids have to do to get along in the world.
The story is all about “creative” ways that libraries have to help poor children work off piddling amounts of fines and “make them responsible people.”
We open with a scene of many children reading in a branch of the Queens library.
The room was filled with readers, as would be expected. But in Mark’s case, his motivation was not simply the joy of reading – it was a matter of dollars and cents. By reading, Mark was reducing the fines he had accrued for failing to return several books that he had borrowed on time.
It doesn’t say how much the fines are, but they’re probably not that much. The limit before you can’t check out books is $15. That’s considerably less than a lot of people pay for a meal out. I can only assume that Mark can’t come up with $15 somewhere, so the library is making him read like a slave so that he can check out more books. The saddest line?
“Today is my ninth birthday, but I have to finish reading before I can go out and have a party at home,” Mark said.
I found that line depressing. If I was one of the librarians there, I might just pay the fine for him so he could go celebrate his ninth birthday without the bitterness of knowing that a small amount of money stands between him and his hopes for self improvement and reading enjoyment.
We might even ask whether children, especially poor children, should even have fines. Wouldn’t it be better for them, and no worse for everyone else, to implement a Netflix like system for them? Check out three books, keep them for some long time, and then be able to check out more books when those are returned.
Or we could just waive the fines, but that apparently wouldn’t be good for the children, and it’s the library’s job to build character. One library manager said, “Sometimes we adjust the amount but would not redeem the entire fine since the aim is to make them responsible people.” And I thought the aim was to get them reading.
Does making kids who can’t come up with $15 sit at a table and read for hours while other kids can just pay the fine and get more books teach them about responsibility? Or does it just teach them that as long as you don’t have money even the public library will find ways to keep you down?
At the library with the goal of making these children into responsible people, one child ended up with $70 in fines. That’s a lot of fines, but it’s not like the library really lost $70. It’s just an arbitrary amount the library has chosen to charge for not returning things on time. Reducing that to, oh, $20 wouldn’t be too bad would it? The child could still learn responsibility be enforced reading at the library for a few hours.
No, that wouldn’t do. Instead, this is what happened:
“I read for six hours each day for two weeks,’’ he said. “I also participated in the summer art program, and those hours were counted as my reading-down hours. But since my fines were so high, and I did not want to ask my parents for money, I gathered my own pocket money to pay $15 and read down the rest of the fines.”
And now he’s a responsible child. Plus, the library has done it’s job of creating avid readers.
After he had finally gotten rid of his debt to the library, Ali said, “I did not want to read a book for a long time afterward.”
Or maybe not.