Library Shaming?

I have an emotional attachment to libraries.  When I was young, our family didn’t have a car. Before I was old enough to travel by myself, my mother regularly took me on the bus to the library. I was a voracious reader and there was an absurd limit on the number of books one could take out so this trip was a frequent occurrence. 

Libraries stayed in my affection and my routine from that time on. As a homeschooling mom, our family was well known at our local branch. This should help explain why, despite the many momentous events happening in the United States and around the world that will impact millions of lives in frightening ways, I don’t see my concern this week as trivial. Retaining the structure of civilization no matter what turbulent  maelstroms are swirling around our cultural foundations not only keeps us better able to cope with life’s vicissitudes but actually affects the bigger picture as well. 

Years ago, as part of a program that helped a beleaguered New York City become a desirable location again after years of decay, the police department began cracking down on “small” crimes. They started fining and arresting people for jumping the turnstile in the subway, for blocking intersections with their cars rather than stopping at the red light before entering the intersection and they paid attention to littering. Lo and behold, when they enforced the law on minor infractions, an atmosphere of law and order prevailed that helped reduce major criminal activity as well. As things go, that style of policing seems to be out of vogue and New York is dirtier and more crime-ridden again, but the point stands. Sometimes, focusing on the micro-issues keeps the macro-issues under control.

Hence my sadness at hearing that an increasing number of library systems are choosing to forego fining readers for returning books after their due date. Recently, Chicago joined the list of cities determined to end “library shaming.” Inevitably, articles on the subject trot out middle-aged women who have avoided libraries since their ten-year-old selves  couldn’t locate their copy of Anne of Green Gables or sitcoms where characters wallow in shame decades after losing their copy of The Yearling. 

A spokesman for the Urban Library Council said, “We’d rather have you come to the library and engage in our services,” rather than feeling guilty. I admit to being a guilt-inducer of the highest order when my children were younger. I’m not saying for sure, but I might have implied that if books weren’t returned on time and in good condition, pictures of the miscreants would appear in the post office right under those featuring the FBI’s most wanted list. I wasn’t trying to stop my children from reading library books and, indeed, we took out —and returned—thousands. Rather, I was trying to instill the following messages that I had been given. 

  1. Growing up is about accepting responsibility in exchange for being granted more privileges. I recall practicing writing my name in cursive neatly enough so that it would fit on the small library card I desired. Even at the age of six, being allowed to take out books under my own name rather than having them taken out by my mother, signaled that I was getting older and more mature. I needed to prove that with the dedicated hard work of perfecting my signature. (Cursive, of course, is no longer a part of many schools. You will not be surprised to hear that studies show that writing in cursive plays a role in brain development.)
  2. I am expected to be a responsible member of society. My nation/state/city/neighborhood/family have so much to offer me. In return, I, too, need to give to them. 
  3. I must treat others as I want to be treated. If I want access to thousands of well-kept books, I need to treat them properly and return them on time so that others can have similar access. 
  4. I must be accountable if I mess up.  Did I take a book to the park and leave it there? Did I spill a glass of milk on a book? Did I lose track of when my book was due? I need to face the librarian and pay my fine. Wouldn’t we be better off if today’s children practiced owning up to mistakes from an early age on minor issues?  

I’m sure there were more lessons I learned as I was given the key to the wondrous domain of the library. My children learned those lessons too. I truly see the change in libraries today as a tragedy. Libraries shouldn’t be about inculcating children into the latest political fad (such as today’s Drag Queen Story Hours) or providing children with a place to play computer games. They shouldn’t be about a child’s “right” to books without any expectations. They should be about how reading opens millions of doors and how honored and grateful we should be to join the ranks of those granted such a powerful key. 

P.S. I was amused to see how many of my previous Musings mention libraries. Here are two of them from years past: A Library Love Letter and Frigates, Coursers and Librarians.



39 thoughts on “Library Shaming?”

  1. When I was a school librarian for 2 years in the mid-70’s we had an overdue fine of $.02 per (school) day. One child had so many books so badly overdue that the fine totaled over $14! I showed him the figures and told him the Library needed the books back much more than the fine. He finally cleaned his locker and returned them.
    My public library today has a daily fine of $.25, which does add up quickly. Sometimes they offer ‘amnesty’ where fines can be cleared by donating a can of food per late book. Consequences do not have to be in cash.
    Books can easily cost $30-50 each and who-knows-what for special items. Someone who does not return several items from the public library has stolen hundreds of dollars from the community. If someone returns the items in good condition, I would be reluctant to see the Library spend the time, money and good will on debt collections.
    Communities that eliminate all library fines, refuse to prosecute misdemeanors or ignore other ‘broken windows’ will soon have greater problems than empty library shelves.

    1. Being a librarian was one of my, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” answers, Lyna. But you did it! Of course libraries can have ways to work off debt for those for whom the money is really a problem, but losing the idea of responsible citizenship isn’t a good thing. You say it all in your last paragraph.

  2. In response to the comment above about the “little libraries,” they were started by a man from my home state of Wisconsin as a tribute to his mother who was a teacher. He was inspired by Carnegie. (It is likely however that similar libraries were in existence before his non-profit started.) I’m not sure that you allow links in the comment section, but one could find more information by searching for Little Free Library. I’ve seen this idea expand now and there are little boxes in communities filled with fresh produce, canned goods, or hygienic products.

  3. My daughter and Granddaughter were at the library today. Our little town had decorate a pumpkin with the local Sheriffs. Other towns close by have had Drag Queen story hour. Such a sad state when now the library is a vehicle for politics instead of learning. Great post as usual.

    1. Lynd, I hope you take the time to let the library council and town council know how happy you were with today’s activity. Sometimes we all (including me) forget to give compliments as quickly as we give complaints.

  4. Susan, once again, I’m late in replying, but I can shed a little light on the issue of removing fines.
    This proposal actually was implemented at the county library I worked for 20 years ago. The librarians were divided over the proposal. It was implemented for two reasons: the library didn’t need the money from fines; and it was believed more people would visit the library if they were not fined for returning overdue materials. HOWEVER, and this is why it was eventually approved – if the patron had items checked out on their card that had not been returned, they could be restricted from checking out more until the overdue items were returned or restitution was made. Restitution was not always financial either. Other options were available.

    I moved shortly after the change was made, so I’m not certain if it is still in effect today.

    But I’m fairly certain the libraries eliminating fines still have a policy to deal with patrons who do not return the materials they check out. They’re just not advertising it.

    1. Mary, I’d be curious to hear more about it as well as what the impact has been. Also, in a huge nation what works in one town or city doesn’t necessarily work in another. Thanks for your personal input.

  5. Susan – As a fellow library lover, I heartily agree. The removal of fines is just another step down the slippery slope our nation is choosing. Being “responsible” is becoming a thing of the past and it is making for a dangerous world. Our family of seven is also grieved that fewer and fewer actual books are being maintained at the library. It has become hard to read an entire series because there are usually some missing from the collection (another sign of lack of responsibility on the patrons part). We aren’t interested in electronic books – there is just nothing like holding the actual book in one’s hand! It is pretty normal in a typical evening to see all seven of us ranging in age from 12 to 59 sitting together, each with a book in our hands! I consider every dollar I pay in tax to the library, or a fine that I earned:) money well spent!

    1. Laurie, I heartily agree that I feel differently about a physical book than an ebook, though I do appreciate not taking extra pounds on trips and being able to read at night without turning the light on. I used to feel good about tax dollars spent on libraries, but I am questioning it more and more as the libraries change. A young friend of mine told me that her (homeschooled) children were looking for a book on the Industrial Revolution at our local branch and couldn’t find one. When she asked the librarian she was told, “Oh, we don’t have books on things like that.” They could easily find books geared for children on changing genders.

  6. I was a huge library book reader which led me to joined a community relations committee, and I went on to become president of the library board. I stopped going to our local library when a desk worker refused to accept more boxes of books donated for library fundraiser sale than the daily prescribed amount, telling me I needed to come back the next day and the day after to unload all my boxes. That rule was too stupid. I donated all my books elsewhere and have not been back. It seems one staff member or rule can turn off even an ardent supporter. I also found that our library was flush with liberal books and “junk food for the brain” reading, DVDs, etc. and zero Christian and very little conservative or current serious reading. I buy books now and pass them on to friends. I’m happy to financially support writers, to include your husband. I long ago stopped donating money to my local library beyond my required taxes. And yes, it saddens me.

    1. I wish I could be shocked by what you wrote, Carolyn, but I’m not. I’m afraid that libraries in many places are joining the list of once-wonderful institutions in our society. However, I think they do respond to local input, so maybe this isn’t a national problem.

  7. Good Morning Susan. Once again you illuminate a core tenant upon which the essence of our civilization depends. Your example allows one to visualize and to understand the importance of rules and our need to follow them. I spend a lot of time discussing with our grandchildren the concept known as ‘minding.’ I explain it to them as being the learning of rules and the following of them.

    I use various examples of what ‘minding’ a rule means and what can and will happen when one does not. In your example, the failure to ‘mind’ seemingly simple rules can and will translate into the loss of our libraries. I explain using the word ‘mind’ was not an accident. It means one learns the rules, accepts them, stores them in one’s mind and reflexively, without conscious thought or ‘debate ‘minds’ and follows the rules. Once gaining and internalizing that habit—’minding’—integrates into one’s behavior.
    I always attempt to provide our grandchildren with an illustrative example to consider and to suggest to them to imagine what would happen if everyone decided not to “mind’ that rule. An example may be a simple as a red light at an intersection or be generalized into more complex issues, as they grow older.

    Too many adults have not learned how to mind in our complex society. Minding demands one to honor and to follow the rules, be they enumerated in one’s faith, family or in our broader society. Thanks again for that which you and the Rabbi offer for our consideration.

    1. Michael, my children had a book called, “What If Everyone Did It?” that showed amusing picture illustrations of what would happen if everyone littered etc. It negated the idea of, “It’s no big deal.” Your language of minding is a good idea. Your grandchildren are fortunate to have you.

  8. Neweverymoment, Deb:
    Go, Susan! As usual, you state so clearly what so many of us feel. I learned to read when I was three years old and have never stopped; in fact, I can walk down the street with my nose in a library book and never trip over a tree root. Eons ago, when I was teaching first grade, there was a bookshelf on wheels in the classroom, and when my students had finished their seat work, they were encouraged to go pick out a book to read. I had explained that no matter what they were interested in, someone somewhere had written a book on the subject. More often than people might think, one reads a library book and is so impressed that one buys one’s own copy. One of the greatest things about the Harry Potter books is that they encouraged so many relatively young children to read, with petite creatures lugging huge tomes around and enjoying them (not to worry; underlying philosophy was stoicism, nothing demonic). But “dyslexia” is rewarded with government funds instead of just teaching children in the way that child needs to be taught.

  9. I agree with you 100% Susan. I don’t know how someone failing to engage in a contract (checking out library materials with the expectation of their timely return in good condition) would be considered to be shamed. If someone checking out materials can’t keep their end of the bargain – which is clearly understood at point of transaction, and the rest of the community is kept from access to what they have failed to return, that’s the patron’s fault. I wouldn’t call it shameful. I’d call it irresponsible, an accident, an oversight, called out of town unexpectedly – but it’s not shameful. It’s the price one pays for being able to go into a building and leave with an item for free based on the honor system. The only shame I see is for any library system that would expect so little of members of their community.

  10. You always hit it out of the park, Susan. Yes, the broken window syndrome has taken down many a formerly great city like NYC under Rudy’s reign.

    1. It is really sad to see NYC having cleaned up its act and then to see it go downhill again, Kristin.

  11. Mrs. Lapin,
    Thank you. You make thinking.
    The training issue is quite good. Now for the,” What if..?”
    The times seen where there was abuse of penalty in life?
    This, as when fines are wrong and lost books are not truly lost , which makes for mistrust. It still shows how there needs that adult input, which teaches what to do, and gives the sense of value to the young who are setting out. There again too is the ,”picture book”, for young to study for their later use. Thank you for ganzin megilla chance. Just like one known, meaning Esther, where the voice makes a difference. Good copy.

  12. Once upon a time I was told that when one arrives in Heaven, the environment could be a city or a country scenery, depending on what one yearns for. And one could be in heaven living in a palace, mansion, or house, or apartment, or trailer, depending on what one yearns for.

    Since hearing that, I thought of my personal heavenly scene would be a well- furnished, beautifully designed spacious library. Since I was a child, being in a library surrounded by books was as natural as a fish in water. It’s a wonder I never became a librarian yet I am a researcher.

    Now it seems the public library is just another dinosaur to be extinct. Things have changed quite a bit over the decades. Patrons are encouraged to have a library card so they have access to books and magazines online thus eliminating the need to be in the library. Most public libraries now serve as a place for the homeless to stay in all day long having access to bathrooms and the computers provided. Most public libraries serve as an alternative for parents who cannot afford after school care for their children, so it becomes quite noisy and unruly at times especially with no security guard around. And those precious, hard working informative librarians are being used for unpaid child care and as unpaid social workers. The future for public libraries seemed to be quite dim.

    1. Libraries in many places have become exactly what you describe, Lisa. And the different tasks allocated to them now contradict each other. How can you be a homeless haven and still safe for children?

    2. You describe my experience exactly. There have been times I have had to flee my local branch library because of shrieking toddlers. No one does anything about them, so I guess I am the one who is out of line. The library during some hours is more child care center than library. The street outside is more peaceful. And then there are the homeless. One day there was a man, slumped in a chair at a table, who radiated an overpowering stench anywhere within a radius of about fifteen feet. It Was beyond belief! A librarian told me that they have very strict rules about what they can do about it. They are not even allowed to call the police unless certain things happen.

  13. I grew up with a library kitty corner from my back yard so I was there often. My parents, especially my father, fostered a love of learning and the written word. I can remember taking books out and returning them the same day only to have the librarian try to tell me I couldn’t do that, I had to read them first. My older sister had to explain to her that I had read them and was a fast reader. That wonderful librarian, Pauline Weir, showed me where I could find books that were my reading level rather than my age level. I loved that woman. I worry that without holding people accountable for the books they borrow that they won’t return them. What is going to happen when people’s personal libraries, or worse, their trash bins, have all the books that should be in the library and were not returned? Those few cents a day add up but when no one is paying them and no one is returning books, what will happen to our libraries? Funding and donations keep them open but books are expensive and this will be an added cost that will be hard to make up.

  14. I have a question that might be answered better elsewhere. As one who studies the proper role of government and the use of our tax monies, I’ve noted that typically the proper role should be to punish evil and protect the innocent from evil (police, military, etc.) Public schools don’t seem to make the cut, in my opinion. As a homeschooler, I’ve also been a frequent user of libraries and have uneasily wondered if libraries are a legitimate use of taxpayers’ monies (along with other things homeschoolers tend to make use of such as 4-H, etc.) Any thoughts? I’m fine if you don’t allow this here but would be curious of your opinion on the matter. Thank you!

    1. That’s a perfectly fine question, Lori, and I’m happy to have anyone jump in with an opinion. What is and isn’t a function of government is a question that is constantly being debated.

    2. There is a home that I pass by often when I return home from work and they have a box next to their mailbox which is filled with books. It appears as if,if you would like to borrow and/or leave a book, go right on ahead. I need to stop and ask them what it is all about. I hate to bother them but I am curious myself.

      1. Lisa, I have seen places like this. The idea is “take one, leave one,” though you are welcome to take even if you don’t have one to leave. They are usually run by individuals who just love books though sometimes a community puts up a few shelves.

        1. I, too, have seen the “take a book, leave a book [or not]” deposit boxes. Part of the idea is to encourage and to share the love for reading within communities.

  15. 1. It is, at the taxpayers’ expense, a shame that many libraries have “colluded” to excuse individuals from their adult responsibilities. Teaching children before they become adults to be law abiding citizens is a responsibility for those in leadership roles: parents, teachers, librarians, religious leaders and civil leaders. (Sadly, not only is there a shirking of this sort of responsibility on fines there are also some downright evil doings from so-called, “well-intentioned” individuals; in a large downtwon Houston, TX library, there were trans-men or cross-dressed men reading to children-two of whom were registered sex offenders!)

    2. My family and I have paid a number of small fines over the years, but my husband took a library book with him during travels recently and he lost it. We paid about $30 to replace it; the copy he lost was relatively new and we replaced it with a new copy. However, we don’t believe that the library would have asked us to replace the book if it were not from an inter-library loan. It had come in as a college book copy. Regardless, we supported our local library very well and have made good friends in three major library counties: San Diego-CA, King County-WA, and Harris County-TX. We love our libraries and most of the time, our librarians.

    3. I couldn’t help but mention (this unrelated topic save for the word shaming) that I was walking along in a large store the other day and I did a double-take passing by an aisle. On the end of it was a vertical display of calendars. One calendar had pictures of puppies with signs hung on their necks and the calendar was titled “Puppy Shaming.” I took a picture and sent it to my family, exclaiming, “The things I see in the store!”

      1. I imagine the calendar is supposed to be humorous. There are a number of “puppy shaming” memes floating around (e.g. sad looking dog standing amid shredded papers with sign stating “I ate my owner’s homework” or something of that nature.). Someone decided to compile and do a calendar layout.

      2. The calendar, “Puppy Shaming,” is supposed to be humorous. It’s just weird stuff in the larger scheme of things and, to me, it seems pointless. But, I guess there are people who might spend some money on it.

  16. Ditto. Recently, I was bothered my late fees were so cheap. I borrow so many books, a dime a day for being late feels wrong.

    1. Hilary, you can always support your local Friends of the Library. My problem is that the Librarian’s Association has joined the Leftist side of the political spectrum, so I don’t necessarily approve of what they are spending money on.

  17. Hi Susan, Your description for love of reading as a youngster reminded me of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. Did you know that after amassing a fortune of over $300 million, he then gave much of it away much of that to build 1,689 libraries? (pretty staggering I think) So perhaps you have a penniless Scot immigrant to this country to thank for part of your love of reading!

    1. I love seeing Carnegie libraries, Rich. I believe that they all make you go up a flight of lovely stairs to get to the entrance – you will be properly humbled and awed when you enter.

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