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Philadelphia Ends Library Fines

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep with a chance at amnesty for some library patrons. People in Philadelphia can now bring back massively overdue books without paying a dime. Following the lead of some other big cities, the library trustees voted to eliminate late fees and wipe out any outstanding debt. From our member station WHYY, Aaron Moselle reports.

AARON MOSELLE, BYLINE: The total fine is etched in Tiera Hinson's mind - $294. That's how much her neighborhood library said she owed for the handful of college prep books she borrowed and never returned, books the library assumed were lost.

TIERA HINSON: And I was like, oh, no. I don't have that.

MOSELLE: Hinson eventually whittled down that debt to about $30, but not before taking a three-year hiatus from checking out books. She says it was tough for her three kids, who like to borrow movies from the library.

HINSON: I felt like I was letting them down. And then that's when they came home and said, Mom, we can get our own library cards. And they're very responsible with their library card because they remember the bill I had.

MOSELLE: Hinson's stressful experience can soon be filed under H for history. Under its new policy, libraries here won't penalize people who return things late, though they'll still have to bring back overdue items or pay for lost ones before checking out anything else. Siobhan Reardon is president of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Addressing city council, she says the goal is to tackle two problems created by overdue fees, especially those incurred by cardholders who can't afford them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIOBHAN REARDON: One, these customers tend to stay away from the library, believing that they are barred from accessing all of our services. And two, materials that are not returned are not available to other customers who want to borrow them.

MOSELLE: The city's library system collects roughly $400,000 in fines each year - a lot of money, but less than 1% of its annual budget. The idea of libraries going fine-free isn't new. But the concept is definitely gaining momentum, especially in big cities including Chicago, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

Susan Benton heads the D.C.-based Urban Libraries Council. She says the racial tensions and civil unrest flaring after Ferguson and Charleston pushed her group to encourage more libraries to get rid of late fines. To her, barring people from using a public resource because of spiraling fines goes against the library's core mission.

SUSAN BENTON: When those events happened, it really hit us in the face, in our heads, in our hearts that we needed to become more active and really take ownership of our role in helping our communities, helping our cities, helping our counties, helping the people who live in our jurisdictions.

MOSELLE: The fine-free trend does have its critics. The most common concern is that residents will take advantage and hold on to books even longer, possibly forever, because there's no penalty for doing so. But Mary Jo Giudice, who heads libraries in Dallas, says the opposite appears to be true. After her system did away with fines, she noticed an uptick in usage and circulation. She also noticed something that might seem a bit counterintuitive.

MARY JO GIUDICE: People are actually bringing their items back before the due date, which is wonderful because things get into circulation faster. We're not seeing the opposite, that people are keeping things longer because we're not fining them.

MOSELLE: Other libraries are reporting similar results. Still, more than 90% of libraries still fine patrons. And while it's not the new norm yet, the trend towards getting rid of fines altogether appears to be gaining traction.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Moselle in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.