While we could write an entire book on the wonderful and transformative nature of public libraries, our chapter on late fees wouldn’t be quite so chipper. A recent change, though, has given us hope that we might soon be able to rip out these pages entirely: The Cambridge Public Library, starting on Oct. 19, began piloting a program designed to abolish fees on most late return items.
Indeed, libraries themselves are the cornerstones of community life in America, emerging as an essential component of our social safety net. Beyond simply serving as pleasant spaces, libraries actively offer a host of essential services — from free WiFi to resume building workshops — that people of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from. Especially in light of dwindling funding for more explicit social safety net programs, libraries step in to fulfill this vital role.
Late fees, however, deserve no place within such empowering community spaces. Cambridge residents have busy lives, and late fees, in practice, amount to little more than the imposition of enormously regressive penalties upon individuals who are already swamped and struggling. This burden inevitably falls hardest on low-income individuals, which feels especially counterintuitive in light of the fact that people who cannot afford to buy books themselves are, indeed, among the most important beneficiaries of the public libraries.
Late fees are not just unnecessarily punitive — they also serve no real purpose besides decreasing the accessibility of public libraries, books, and the transmission of knowledge. In unpacking the frivolous — even counterproductive — nature of late fees, the evidence clearly speaks for itself: Libraries across the country that have eliminated late fees have found that doing away with these fines has actually led to more books being returned, as library patrons no longer fear fines upon returning a book.
The imperative to increase access to libraries becomes even more vital when situated within the crisis of literacy in the United States: The U.S.’s relatively high literacy rate masks devastating inequities in reading abilities and access to literature among our nation’s youth. Reading ability among children is directly correlated with their life outcomes, yet socioeconomic status continues to be significantly related to children’s reading development. Against this backdrop, libraries are a critical component of any plan to bridge these divides, as they can provide cost-free options to parents and serve to promote reading skills within children across backgrounds and identities.
To that end, we would like to applaud the city of Cambridge for making library funding a priority. We hope that other cities choose to follow Cambridge’s lead, and to carefully invest in their own public library systems. After all, when we choose to invest in libraries, we are also choosing to invest in people, children, and the communities in which they are situated.
We also urge Harvard’s own libraries to become more deliberate about making themselves accessible to the broader community. Some enclaves at the University like the Harvard Art Museums, which is free for Cambridge residents, have already begun to make their resources available to non-Harvard affiliates. Ultimately, this offers a model to follow and serves as a testament to the fact that similar efforts certainly can, and should, be pursued.
Libraries serve as a great equalizer — they provide access to knowledge without a prohibitively high barrier to entry, and they are the bedrock of public education in this country. We hope that more libraries begin to follow in the footsteps of the Cambridge Public Library: to collectively refuse to judge a patron’s book by its cover, and to write a story that ultimately ends with late fees being abolished for all.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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