A Fine Way to Encourage Reading

Imagine a bookstore that worked on a membership program — instead of buying books, you rented them. And instead of paying a per-book rental fee, they baked that cost into the cost of the membership. There are some limits on the number of books you can rent out at a time, but they’re reasonable if not extraordinarily high — so if you’re going on vacation, no worries, you’ll have plenty to read. And you don’t need to be anyone special to join this club; just about anyone could apply for membership.

Seems like a fancy Internetty startup? Nope. It’s your local library. And it’s hard to compete with — membership is free. There’s one catch, though: if you don’t return your books on time, you have to pay a fine. The fine is typically a pretty low one — often less than 25 cents — and typically serves as little more than a reminder (with a tiny bit of bite) that you really should return that book to your local library. For a grown-up, the fines are probably no big deal. But for a kid, and particularly one from a low-income family? Try explaining to your mom why she has to spend $10 because you lost library books. It’s not going to be a fun conversation.

And let’s face it, many kids with fines don’t have to have those conversations with their parents — they can avoid the fine simply by avoiding taking other books the library. (And at that point, the library is going to suspend their borrowing privileges anyway.) The result is a lose-lose situation: the kids read less and the library doesn’t get that $10 anyway.

So, the Los Angeles County library system fixed it. They call it the “Great Read Away.”

Cardholders under the age of 21 have a new way to pay their fines through the program, no money required. All they need to do is come to the library and read. For every hour of reading, the library system will forgive $5 worth of fines. And it needn’t be a book, either — magazines, newspapers, and comic books count. (Listening to audiobooks or watching movies based on novels does not, however.) Parents and caregivers can read to children to help the kids pay off the debt (but only the kids’ debt), and for those kids who don’t have the stamina to read for an hour, the librarians can give pro-rated credit.

For the kids of the LA area, the program made a ton of sense. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “13 percent of children’s library accounts were inactive because their fines or fees were above $10,” meaning that tens of thousands of kids were unable to check out books because of past failures to return them.  And the downside of not recouping those lost fines? For the LA County libraries, the idea doesn’t impact the bottom line. Per Marketplace, “library officials said the county can afford getting rid of fines – they make up less than one percent of its $200 million library budget.”

It looks like the program is a success, too. According to CBS News, “more than 80 libraries have logged more than 50,000 reading sessions and reinstated more than 13,000 previously blocked accounts” in the program’s first year. Other library systems have adopted similar programs, too. Los Angeles, though, will probably see fewer kids taking advantage of the “Great Read Away” program in the future — a year into it, they got rid of late fees altogether for children under 21, although fines for lost books remain.

Bonus fact: By and large, if you fail to return a library book for too long, the fines will ultimately stop racking up — most libraries will charge you the replacement fee plus some flat administrative fee (in the ballpark of $10). That isn’t always the case though. In 2009, a man in the Boston area found an overdue library book among his late mother’s possessions; it was due 99 years prior. When he returned it, the fine would have been about $360, or a penny per day overdue, but the library waived the fee. It’s too bad they did, though, as the payment would have been a world record, at least according to Guinness. As of this writing, the highest fine ever paid for an overdue library book is $345.14, for a book returned 47 years past the return date with a two-cent per day fine attached.

From the Archives: The People You Can Check Out of the Library: Another library innovation, this one with little risk of running into overdue fines.