Thursday, April 14, 2016

That May Be Fine with You

To those on the “better-off” part of the economic ladder, the relevancy of access to a local public library is a thought that never crosses their minds. But for those for whom getting to books, periodicals and even a computer with linkage to the Web makes access to public facilities the only option, being denied the ability to use that library can have devastating consequences. Unable to afford books, a computer and fees to get online without public help, being cut off from a public library gets downright serious, particularly for kids trying to keep up with their more affluent peers.
We’re not talking about local budgets shutting down local public libraries, although that is a reality in some communities. The issue here is the administration of fines for lost books or late fees. Right here in California, for example, the local library in San Jose is owed a whopping $6.8 million in fines. And since the Silicon Valley is pretty much a San Jose regional asset, the denial of access to books and computers to lower income kids, for technical reasons, is particularly absurd. “[The aggregate level of public library fines in San Jose] exceeds other Bay Area cities like Oakland, which has $3 million in outstanding fines, and San Francisco, which has $4.6 million. In San Jose, when the late fee hits $50, the library refers the debt to a collection agency.
“As the total of overdue fines has increased, so has the number of cardholders who owe $10 or more and are prohibited from borrowing materials or using the library’s computers.” New York Times, March 30th.  Fines that mean nothing to middle class kids are devastating to others without comparable incomes.
If a child loses a book or forgets to return it on time, that $10 limit is a pretty low threshold to meet. A lost book or two can multiply that cost by leaps and bounds, and for those without any real discretionary income, the ability to use the tools readily available to most middle class children just vaporizes for those on the wrong side of the economic spectrum. Facing a debt collector for even modest levels of fines just makes the situation that much more difficult.
The very concept of public libraries came from an attempt to increase equal opportunity to books for all residents to better themselves. “The concept of free public libraries gained support in the 1830s and was popularized by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie , who helped build 1,689 libraries around the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s on the notion that all people should have an opportunity to improve themselves. But public libraries like San Jose’s are struggling to find money to pay for books and services.
“In San Jose, libraries began charging 50 cents a day for an overdue book, and what Jill Bourne, who become director of libraries in 2013, called ‘an exorbitant processing fee’ of $20 for lost materials. Those high fines have come at a cost… In impoverished neighborhoods, where few residents have broadband connections or computers, nearly a third of cardholders are barred from borrowing or using library computers. Half of the children and teenagers with library cards in the city owe fines. Around 187,000 accounts, or 39 percent of all cardholders, owe the library money, Ms. Bourne said.
“Outsiders might think that ‘everyone in Silicon Valley is affluent and hyperconnected,’ said Mayor Samuel T. Liccardo. He represents San Jose’s one million residents, 40 percent of whom are immigrants. ‘We still have a digital divide.’
“‘The kids who are barred from the door of the library are the ones we most desperately want to reach,’ he said… In some immigrant neighborhoods, Ms. Bourne said, ‘there is a fear of government interaction. As soon as people hear there is the potential for being penalized by the government, they want to stay away from that service.’” NY Times. While the harsh realities of denial of access to the San Jose public library are particularly ironic in the Silicon Valley, the barring of access to those who owe fines is hardly relegated to San Jose. The story repeats itself all over the United States.
Some potential lower income users won’t even allow their children to get library cards for fear of generating fines. San Francisco has created two tiers of fines: zero late fees for children 17 and under, and 10 cents a day for older users. Looking at fines as a revenue source to relieve taxpayer burdens seems to counter the intention of providing general access to books, periodicals and computers. Libraries should not, many librarians argue, rely on penalties for survival-level financial support. The San Jose City Council is considering altering their library policies and restructuring how its library is funded.
“The problem of late fees is so widespread that the American Library Association has addressed the issue. In a little-known policy objective, it calls for ‘the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.’” NY Times.
And there are innovative alternatives. “At the Queens Public Library in New York, young people owe $1.45 million in fines. While that is a significant amount, Joanne King, the director of communications, said, ‘We’re very concerned about people not being able to use the library.’
“Those who cannot pay money, she said, can pay down their debt with reading time in the library. The program lets children and young adults through age 21 spend time reading in the library to earn financial credit to pay fees.
“‘Unpaid fines are part of the cost of doing business,’ said Joseph Keenan, Newark’s interim library director. ‘If you have a family with kids and they don’t return the materials, do you want to say, ‘You can’t use the materials?’ Absolutely not.’´” NY Times.
The issue of income inequality is ripping America apart, and as our middle class falls and those at the top siphon even more wealth, we can see the impact of this economic polarization everywhere. Even in little things like public libraries. And people wonder how populist political candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have so much support? Look around you to see the collapse of the American dream, the end of upward social mobility and a playing field that is wildly tilted in favor of the wealthy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and this country needs a massive re-balancing of economic realities if it is to survive as a nation.

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