A movement to abolish late charges or foes for overdue books from public libraries is gaining momentum. First came St. Paul, whose public library system began this year by dropping overdue material fines, forgiving more than $2.5 million in outstanding fees. Then Duluth, which abolished late library fees this summer, joining at least two other communities (Hibbing on the Iron Range, and Grand Marais, in the northeast tip of our state).

Now, the initiative has spread to Hennepin County where signatures are being solicited to petition Hennepin County Library Commissioners.

Some say it is a movement whose time has come: yet, it could be argued – and will be here – that the movement ought to be stopped before it spreads.

Library legacy

Hennepin County has a long, historic library legacy. It was formed in 2008 with a merger of the Minneapolis Public Library, dating back to 1885, and the Hennepin County library systems, created in 1922. The current arrangement comprises 41 libraries, along with websites and outreach programs, which serve some 1.2 million residents of the 611 square miles in the county, along with any who frequent those facilities but live outside of Hennepin County.

Its facilities include a pair in the quad communities: the Golden Valley Library a couple of blocks north of city hall on Winnetka Avenue has been serving its patrons for more than four decades. Crystal, New Hope and Robbinsdale are served by the Rockford Road library, which was established in 1972 as an outgrowth of the historic Robbinsdale Library. That library served patrons from 1926 to 1975 at 4915 42nd Ave. N, earning the building a place on the national historic register.

I am part of the Hennepin County library legacy. I spent many youthful hours at the historic Sumner Branch library, created in 1915 and funded by the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, who paid for several libraries across the nation. Sumner is a beautiful, big brown building, located on Highway 55, halfway between downtown Minneapolis and the eastern boundary of Golden Valley. It’s been renovated from time to time, and hasn’t failed to serve the ever-changing demographics of the area.

School visits, special weekend and evening programs, individual visits and some with my friends occupied a great deal of my time during my formative years. When I returned to the building in 2015 for its centennial celebration, I was struck by its continuity, stability and flexibility in adapting to new needs of a different and diverse community.

I fondly recall those times almost each day as I drive past the edifice to and from my home in Golden Valley to downtown Minneapolis.

Fondness and fines

Despite this affection, or perhaps because of it, the movement to abolish fines on late books is troubling. Some supporters point out that there is scant evidence that charges curtail late returns, although common sense would suggest they do. Moreover, fines alert book borrowers to the consequence of failure to abide by proscribed requirements, instilling a measure of discipline and respect for following the reasonable and legitimate rules.

Advocates of late charge abolition also maintain that doing so would encourage greater use of libraries, rather than deterring people from coming to them to check out books or refraining from returning to the facilities because of overdue books.

This, too, is a shibboleth. It may well be that those who abuse their library privileges ought not to be encouraged to use the facilities, unless they are willing and able to follow the rules and requirements imposed by libraries.

Supporters of forgiveness also point out that imposing fees has a discriminatory impact upon the economically under-privileged, particularly members of racial and ethnic minorities.

That may be true, but so do many (perhaps most) charges of much greater magnitude for providing goods and rendering services. Those who support doing away with late fees might, for that matter, urge government units to stop charging for vehicles at parking meters. Better yet, they might reasonably extend that thinking to the state: we should no longer charge people for driver’s licenses, vehicle transfer taxes or even impose monetary fines for driving offenses. All of those features have an inherently disparate impact upon people who were economically disadvantaged.

There are other alternatives to flat-out eliminating fines. Those who are overdue in returning borrowed items could be asked to provide services, like stacking books or cleaning the facilities, to work off their fines. This would impress the importance of timeliness, while helping the library system, a real win-win.

Abolishing late charges altogether, however, is not a fine idea.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Golden Valley historian and constitutional law and employment attorney.

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