Annoyed Librarian
Search ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

Indentured Servitude @ Your Library

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.



  1. Really? The saddest story? I have read countless homeless stories, abandoned children stories, etc. that are a lot sadder than an irresponsible kid learning responsibility. Boohoo, poor little kid had to wait an hour to celebrate his birthday. I do think this is terrible idea, but really? The saddest library story you ever read?

  2. Joanne King says:

    Wow. This gives children an opportunity to regain their borrowing privileges in a library so they can complete school assignments, etc. And they spend the time reading.

    But you don’t like the idea. And you’re blogging in LIBRARY JOURNAL. Wow.

    • Hello Joanne King, spokeswoman for the Queens Library system. I think AL offered some legitimate, reasoned criticisms of the program. Could you give a substantive response to the points she raised?

    • @kmad

      Actually she didn’t. She made no comment on how the program has been successful or any other positive affect the program has had. Legitimate, reasoned concerns included all aspects of an issue and does not pick choose pieces to suit their argument. If you read the article that AL has referred to you would see that.

  3. Adults and teens who can’t afford fines are allowed to work them off in our library. They move boxes or dust shelves, maybe wash windows or help with other projects we can’t afford to hire someone to do.
    Parents are responsible for juvenile library users (those who are too young to get to the library on their own. This would be different ages for different libraries and rural libraries are very different from urban libraries). It should be the parent sitting there reading.

  4. annoyedlibraryworker says:

    Ok, my library system does a similar program over the summer, and I’m not buying the oppression and sadness angle here. One, the program is completely voluntary and participants can set their own schedule as to when they want to read down their fines. Obviously, with younger children, the parents might do so, it seems plausible that the birthday party childs parent is using a pretty common strategy of work then reward . Would you be as sad if the parent stipulated, that they must clean their room before they can have friends over, or they must eat all their vegetables before they can have dessert? Is there really anything wrong with teaching children to respect the consequences of their actions? You borrow something, you agree by borrowing it that it is to be returned by the due date, and if you don’t there is a penalty? It seems like a lesson that may be of benefit later in life. In my experience library users both adult and children, often rack up much more than 15 dollars in fines because items they take out come back damaged or not at all, and that is something that negatively affects the library system, especially in this age of declining funding. Collections are a shared resource, not just free stuff, and everyone should play by the same rules and more importantly they can, if they put the effort in. Where I will agree with you is that it’s doubtful that programs like this, turn children into better readers or encourage them to use the library more.

  5. I’ve seen better April Fool’s stories, honestly.

  6. Dusty Gres says:

    Being responsible and learning responsibility for your own actions are important. The last time I spoke with a Mother (NOT poor) that had overdue fines she told me that it was stupid to pay for old books at the library. She only kept them 6 months longer than the date and she was just too busy to return them. However, the saddest part of this story to me is the part where reading is considered the punishment or payment whichever you prefer. That sure puts reading on the bottom of the list.

  7. Bonegirl06 says:

    Why fines? Why have a due date? Because library resources are for everyone, whether they are rich or poor. You HAVE to return your book because other people want to use it to. You can’t just keep the book for some long period of time and return it when you feel like it. That’s not fair to everyone else who wants to use it, especially in the case of highly sought-after books which tend to walk off the shelves and never come back anyways. If you can find a way to come to the library and check the book out, how hard is it to find a way to come back in two weeks to bring it back?

    • @Bonegirl06 they are children can we hold the parents accountable for this at any time ???

  8. I feel this library system needs a new system!!!! If a child is under the age of 12 years old his or her card should be fine free!! And once the child in now a teenager you can teach responsibitlty to him or her. Parents are responsible for their children and what they check out and why they items could possible be late. Children can not get in a car and drive themselves to the library to return items a parent does that. Let me know if they need instructions on how they can go about getting a new system!!!!

    • Natasha says:

      You’ve never worked in a library where patrons have had their accounts blocked due to non-payment of fines, then opened up accounts for their children, only to check out things for the parent which are also never returned? It’s frequently not the kids who are causing the problems with late fines or overdue billing.

  9. I think I like AJ’s library better. Doing something actually of value to the library in exchange for remission of fines makes sense, while teaching patrons that reading is a chore or a punishment seems counter to the interests of libraries and, for that matter, the communities which support them.

    It’s also sensible to re-examine whether fines are the most effective way to ensure that libraries have materials available sufficient to meet reasonable demand. Isn’t that the purpose of time limits and fines?

  10. At one of my former libraries – a very small one where many patrons were rural poor – we didn’t charge fines on children’s books. My principal library clerk took the time to run reports on any books that were overdue by more than a few days and contact the parents and get the books returned. Why? Because the primary goal in regard to kids was to make them love reading. So even though I don’t think this is quite as bad as you make it out to be, I completely agree that there are better ways to handle the situation. I had never considered it before coming to that library, either, but it made perfect sense when the existing staff told me the policy.

    As a former English Education major, one of the major flaws I always saw in the program was that by forcing kids to read books, we made reading in to a chore, in to something they didn’t want to do, rather than exciting them to read. That’s one of (though not the primary one) of the reasons I didn’t go in to teaching – as a librarian (especially if I ever get a teen services job like I would like to) – I’d like to get kids in to reading rather than making them read.

    I agree responsibility is important, but not the reason libraries exist. And even if you really, really wanted to let kids work off fines, let them do it by doing other work (helping decorate for an event, or something like that) rather than by forcing reading. But honestly, I’d rather not charge or waive the fines for an occasional offender (possibly with a little guilt-inducing discussion) than have them work and therefore see the library as a place to avoid.

  11. I don’t particularly like that they made reading into the equivalent of paying fines – something unpleasant to be gotten over with – but I have no problem whatsoever allowing kids to work off their fines. They’ll learn a lot more about the real world that way than the kids whose parents just plunk out down cash. Being responsible for your behavior is a good thing.

    That being said, we have an awful lot of kids whose cards are blocked because Mom couldn’t bring herself to return 50 Shades of Grey or the latest Batman film on time. Parents use kids’ cards all the time, and it isn’t fair (IMO) for the kids to have to work because their parents were irresponsible.

  12. I think this library is so off, that I don’t even know what to say about it. But if the problem is that books are shared resources, why don’t charge a fine only for books that have a hold on it or have been requested? The library could send a note to the kid/parent giving them 3-5 days to return the book because somebody else wants to read it. Otherwise, why do libraries want back books that sometimes is just going to sit on the shelf? Don’t tell me that all the books that are checked out have a waiting list. Now to check out other books, the books should be returned first.

    • I like this in theory, but I don’t think it would work practically. This puts the responsibility of enforcing the book return on the other patron who wants the book. I know that if I am browsing a library, find a book in the catalog, and see that it is checked out, I will usually just move along. Most people won’t care to go through the process of requesting it specifically.

      While your system is a good idea, it doesn’t account for the patrons who want a book and don’t go through the process of requesting it.

    • Bonegirl06 says:

      Because the resource should be available even if other patrons don’t know they want it at the time. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve picked out just by browsing. Also, I will look up one book in a subject and usually find several others that I also want. And because, well, it’s not their property. They are borrowing it, not keeping it indefinitely, and it belongs back in the library.

  13. Jacqueline says:

    I’m honestly shocked and upset by your spin on this story. You obviously didn’t read the same article I did. The library instituted the program years ago and states that the program has proven to be popular and that patrons are voluntarily choosing it. Also they offer other programs other than reading that include SAT prep which actually greatly benefits lower income individuals who might not otherwise have access to prep courses. It is important to make sure that children learn to be responsible for the items they borrow and this and other library systems have come up with a creative solution that is beneficial to both the library to boost continued use and the users as a way to pay off their fines without suffering income loss.

  14. I once had a library fine of about $250 or so. I paid all at once in brand new, shiny bright gold dollar coins. Huge pile. Looked like a leprechaun hit the jackpot. The librarians called each other over to marvel at the glittering pile. I’d have to read for years to work that off.

    • davidinva says:

      Hope that was in the days before gold prices shot up. Also, don’t most libraries have a limit on fines? Our public library’s is $10.00, no matter how high the computer calculates them.

    • @davidinva, I owed that much money because some contractor stole things including library books so I had to pay full price to replace a number of books. There was no limit about which I was informed, but I would have paid anyway so as not to mooch off the public dime. The gold coins were the golden $1 coins issued a few years back, not real gold coins. Hence, no real leprechaun was harmed in the paying of that fine.

  15. John Smith says:

    The Read Away Fees program and QBPL is such a joke because 90% of the time the kids aren’t reading or doing their homework. They sneak out and only come back before closing to redeem their coupons. Once their fees are under 15 they just forget to return more books and the cycle continues. Last summer when the three NYC systems went to a ‘Tri-Li’ (Three Library) Card for Summer Reading, NYPL waived the fines for kids and teens. But QBPL HAS to, MUST have these people read the fines off. Oh and the program goes to age 21. Many librarians feels if you can buy alcohol, you can pay down your late fees, What a waste of potential programming funding! (This is what the overdue fees go to.)

    I agree with whomever said that the library system should just waive the fees. It’s a waste of limited staff time.

  16. Bobbi Perryman says:

    My library got rid of fines all together. Our patron’s cannot check out new books if they have overdues. It’s a simple system and it works well for us.
    I don’t think the working-off-fines idea is bad, but I also don’t think it’s my job as a librarian to teach anyone character. It’s my job to provide materials and programs my patrons want.

    • Bobbi Perryman says:

      Please ignore the rouge apostrophe!

    • MedLibrarian says:

      I’m glad you made the comment that it is not the librarian’s job to teach character, I never thought about that and I think its a really good point we might sometimes forget. Although I still believe there should be a charge or some form of penalty for not following the rules, which includes not returning items.

  17. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    We could always fall back on Newt Gingrich’s suggestion during the last Presidential race that the little ones be handed a mop and bucket and pointed towards the bathroom to work off their fines.

  18. Lakisha says:

    With our library system children from ages 11 and under are exempt from fines and if something has not been returned and still on the child’s card the card is blocked until the items are returned to any of our 16 branches. Children should not be held accountable their parents should at our locations if a child is under 11 a parent has to sign the child up for a card. Trying something new is always good. This library is shifting responsibility for educating these children and that’s the job of their parents not librarians

  19. You can’t actually enforce fine payment (or workfare) on children, can you? I’m pretty sure (and I heard it from Judge Judy) that you can’t enter a contract with a minor. So why isn’t the parent or caregiver doing community service to work off these fines? Libraries are hilarious.

    • They don’t enforce fine payment, the parents are the ones ultimately responsible for the fines. The library merely offers a rather variety of ways for the fines to paid.

      Did any actually read the article AL was referring to or they merely agreeing or attacking without all the information?

    • Bonegirl06 says:

      Actually, libraries can send a fine to a credit agency, and then it’ll show up on your credit report. In the case of a minor, it might go on the parent’s report. I’m not really sure. Probably not common situation, but it is an option.

  20. librarEwoman says:

    Actually, even if the fine limit before which someone is no longer able to check out is set at $15.00, I’m sure many people manage to accrue fines far over that. How? There are several ways. If a person checks out a stack of 10 books, movies, or CDs, and then loses all of them or never brings them back, that person is charged for the replacement fees for all of those items. That could easily be several hundred dollars. Or, even if they do gradually return them, but they leave them checked out until they are weeks and weeks overdue, their fines could be well in excess of $15.00. So, it’s not safe to assume that the fines owed by these kids (or really, when it comes down to it, their parents) are piddly amounts. I’ve seen cases of kids owing hundreds of dollars on their library cards. Usually, it’s due to the parents checking out tons of stuff on their child’s card and then not returning it, but not always. Sometimes the child really is the party responsible for racking up all of those fines.

  21. I was hoping this whole post and the library where this takes place was a joke. So now it’s the responsibility of librarians to teach responsibility…really? On second thought, fines accrue and until someone – child or parent pays them – privileges are suspended that is teaching responsibility. Last time I was late on one of my bills the company didn’t allow me to show up and file, clean, type, or do anything for them – they just wanted their money so that they could pay their bills. If they did allow me to do these things, I would not only never pay them I probably wouldn’t take them very seriously either.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE