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TEDxUWLaCrosse

Dawn Wacek: A librarian's case against overdue book fines

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Libraries have the power to create a better world; they connect communities, promote literacy and spark lifelong learners. But there's one thing that keeps people away: the fear of overdue book fines. In this thought-provoking talk, librarian Dawn Wacek makes the case that fines don't actually do what we think they do. What if your library just ... stopped asking for them altogether?

- Librarian
Dawn Wacek advocates for equitable library service for all community members. Full bio

Hello, friends.
00:13
I'm happy to see all of you here today.
00:15
This is actually exactly what I say
to the people who visit us
00:18
at the La Crosse Public Library.
00:21
And I say it because I mean it.
00:23
The children who come
into our library are my friends
00:26
in that I care about their needs
and their futures.
00:29
I want them to be happy and successful.
00:32
I hope that they'll find great books
or a movie that delights them.
00:35
Or the solution to a tricky problem.
00:39
Libraries in general
have this wonderful reputation
00:43
of really caring about our communities.
00:46
We put out mission statements
and statements of purpose
00:48
that say that we connect
our community to the broader world.
00:51
We engage minds,
00:55
we create lifelong learners.
00:58
And these ideals are really
important to us as libraries,
01:01
because we know the power they have
to create a better world.
01:04
A more connected world,
a more engaged and empathetic world.
01:08
Books have power, information has power.
01:14
And for the powerless in our communities,
01:16
being able to connect to that
is even more important.
01:19
In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley
01:23
published a study that found
that working class families
01:26
and those being served by welfare
01:28
experience what we now refer to
as the "30 million word gap."
01:30
Essentially, what they learned
is that children in these families
01:35
are hearing so many fewer words each day
01:39
that by the time they are three years old,
01:42
there's this enormous disparity
in their learned language.
01:44
And that gap in words follows them
as they enter school,
01:48
and it results in later reading,
poorer reading skills,
01:51
a lack of success overall.
01:55
Children need to hear words every day
01:58
and they need to hear
not just our day-to-day conversation,
02:00
they have to hear rare words:
02:03
those outside the common lexicon
we share, of around 10,000.
02:05
I'm going to read you a short snippet
from a children's book
02:09
by one of our favorite authors
in the children's room, Eric Carle.
02:13
Some of you might know his work
"The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
02:16
But this is from "'Slowly, Slowly,
Slowly,' said the Sloth."
02:19
"Finally, the sloth replied,
02:25
'It is true that I am slow,
quiet and boring.
02:27
I am lackadaisical,
02:31
I dawdle and I dillydally.
02:32
I am also unflappable, languid, stoic,
02:35
impassive, sluggish, lethargic,
02:38
placid, calm, mellow,
02:41
laid-back and, well, slothful!
02:44
I am relaxed and tranquil,
and I like to live in peace.
02:47
But I am not lazy.'
02:52
Then the sloth yawned and said,
02:54
'That's just how I am.
02:56
I like to do things
slowly, slowly, slowly.'"
02:58
So you can see from this very brief
example from one book in our library
03:04
how Eric Carle used 20 different words
to get the same idea across to children.
03:09
Now we know that a lot of the families
visiting us at the library,
03:15
a lot of our friends,
are struggling financially.
03:19
We know that some of them
are living in poverty,
03:23
and don't have enough to eat
or anywhere safe to live.
03:25
We know that our friend James,
who comes in after school
03:29
and is staying at a local shelter,
03:31
isn't reading at grade level
03:33
and has probably
never read at grade level.
03:34
We know we have that 30 million word gap
03:37
and a corresponding achievement gap
by the time kids enter the third grade,
03:39
both of which directly correlate
to income level.
03:43
So what's the responsibility of libraries
in addressing these gaps?
03:47
How can we help our friends
be more successful, more educated
03:51
and some day, better global citizens?
03:55
It starts with ensuring
free and equitable access
03:58
to everything libraries offer them.
04:02
Books level the playing field
04:04
by exposing children of every
socioeconomic background to words.
04:06
At the library, we provide programs
04:11
that are based on the five tenants
of early literacy:
04:13
playing, singing, talking,
reading and writing.
04:15
We offer programs for adults
04:18
on computer classes
and job-skills training.
04:20
Business start-ups.
04:24
We do all of this great work
for our community members
04:26
and at the same time, we counteract it
by charging fines and fees of our patrons.
04:29
Today in La Crosse,
04:35
10,000 of our users are unable
to check out library materials
04:37
because of fines and fees.
04:41
If we narrow in on our neighborhoods
experiencing the most poverty,
04:43
those where 82 percent of the student body
is considered economically disadvantaged,
04:47
the number rises to 23 percent
of the neighborhood.
04:52
And these are local numbers, it's true,
but they hold true nationwide.
04:56
In libraries across the country
that charge fines,
05:00
the poorest neighborhoods have the most
number of people blocked from use.
05:03
In fact, the Colorado State Library
was so worried about this,
05:09
they published a white paper
05:12
and they stated unequivocally
05:14
that it's the fear of fines
that keeps poor families out of libraries.
05:15
A colleague of mine took a ride
in a Lyft in Atlanta last year,
05:21
and he started chatting with his driver
about libraries, as we do.
05:24
And she told him she grew up
visiting her local library, she loved it.
05:28
But now that she's a parent
with three children of her own,
05:33
there's no way she would allow them
to get a library card,
05:36
because of the strict deadlines
libraries impose.
05:39
She said, "It would be like
another credit card that I can't pay."
05:42
Meanwhile, when other libraries
have experimented with eliminating fines,
05:46
like one in San Rafael
that took away children's fines,
05:50
they had a 126-percent increase
in child card applications
05:55
within the first few months.
05:59
When people aren't afraid
of the fines they might accrue,
06:01
they line up to access
what we have to offer.
06:04
So what are we telling people, then?
06:08
We have these two disparate ideas.
06:10
On the one hand,
we're champions of democracy
06:13
and we claim that we're there so that
every citizen can educate themselves.
06:16
We're advocates for the power
early literacy has
06:22
to reduce that achievement gap
and eliminate the word gap.
06:24
We tell people, "We're here to help you."
06:29
On the other hand,
06:32
if you're struggling financially,
and you make a mistake,
06:33
the kind of mistake
that anyone in this room could make --
06:36
your tote bag that belongs to the library
sits by your back door
06:39
for a couple of weeks
longer than it should,
06:43
you lose a CD,
06:46
you spill your coffee on a book,
06:48
suddenly, we're not here for you
so much anymore,
06:51
because if that happens,
we're going to make you pay for it.
06:53
And if you can't pay for it,
you're out of luck.
06:57
I have been a librarian
for a lot of years.
07:01
And in the past few years,
07:03
I myself have paid
over 500 dollars in late fines.
07:06
Now, you might wonder why,
07:11
I mean, I'm there every day,
and I certainly know how the system works.
07:12
But like all of our friends
at the library,
07:16
I am busy, I lose track of things,
07:20
my house is sometimes messy,
07:23
and I have lost a DVD or two
under the sofa.
07:25
And I have been fortunate enough
to be able to pay
07:31
that 500 dollars
over the last several years.
07:35
If not happily, I at least
had the means to do it.
07:38
So is that fair and equitable service
07:42
if some of us can pay our fines
and continue to operate as we always have,
07:44
and others of us make one mistake
and no longer are welcome back?
07:50
It's simply not.
07:56
Now, why would we continue
to operate under a model that hurts
08:00
our most vulnerable patrons the most?
08:04
There are reasons.
08:07
There are reasons like responsibility.
08:09
There are some libraries that really feel
08:11
that it's our job
to teach people responsibility.
08:13
And they haven't figured out
that there might be ways to do that
08:16
that don't equate to dollars.
08:19
There's also this idea that we share
the resources collectively in a community,
08:21
and so we have to take turns.
08:25
If I keep my "My Little Pony"
movie for too long,
08:27
and somebody else
wants to watch it, it's not fair.
08:30
And then, there's the money.
08:34
Community members
often love their libraries,
08:36
and they don't want us to not be able
to sustain the services we offer.
08:38
Luckily, we can address
all of these things in a variety of ways
08:44
without scaring away
our most vulnerable populations.
08:48
Some libraries have gone
to a Netflix model.
08:52
You might be familiar with this:
08:55
you check things out,
08:57
when you're done with them,
you return them.
08:58
If you don't return them,
you can't check more things out,
09:01
but once you do,
it's all forgiven, it's fine.
09:04
You can check out again.
09:08
Others continue to charge fines,
09:10
but they want to offer alternatives
to their library patrons,
09:12
and so they do things like food for fines,
where you bring in canned goods,
09:15
or read away your fines,
where you can read off your fines.
09:19
There's even another library in Wisconsin
09:22
that offers scratch-off tickets
at their counter,
09:24
so you can scratch off and get
10 or 20 percent off your fines that day.
09:26
And there are amnesty days.
09:30
One day a year, you bring back
your late materials
09:32
and all is forgiven.
09:35
There was a library in San Francisco
that did an amnesty day last year,
09:38
and they welcomed back
5,000 users who had been blocked.
09:42
That same day, they received
more than 700,000 items that were overdue.
09:46
Among them was one book
that was 100 years overdue.
09:52
So I know that sounds ridiculous,
but I know from experience
09:56
that people will stay away
from the library
09:59
rather than face
the authority of the librarian
10:02
when they have late items.
10:04
As Michael might have mentioned,
I've been a librarian for 15 years
10:06
and my mom hasn't been
in a library in decades,
10:09
because when she was young,
she lost a book.
10:12
So, these are great baby steps.
10:18
But they don't go far enough,
10:20
because they make people
jump through hoops.
10:23
They have to come on the right days,
at the right times.
10:28
They might have to have
extra food to share.
10:30
They want to read away their fines,
they need to be literate.
10:33
If we want people
to use the library again,
10:37
we should just get rid
of fines altogether.
10:41
Now, you might think
I've forgotten a money piece,
10:46
where we need to finance libraries, right?
10:48
But there's a couple of things to consider
10:51
when we think about how fines function
in library budgets.
10:53
The first is that fines have never been
a stable source of revenue.
10:59
They've always fluctuated,
11:04
and in fact, they've continued to go down
over the last few decades.
11:06
When the recession hit, especially,
people's ability to pay was hit, as well.
11:11
So for a lot of those 10,000 friends
that we've got at the library
11:15
that aren't able to use it,
11:19
they might never be able to pay us.
11:20
When we talk about
eliminating their fines,
11:22
we're not losing money
so much as the idea of money.
11:24
And thirdly, you might be
surprised to know
11:29
fines on average, nationally,
are about one and a half percent
11:33
of a library's operating budget.
11:37
Now that can still be a lot of money.
11:39
If you're looking at a large library
or a large library system,
11:41
the dollar amount can be high.
11:44
But it's an achievable cut
for most libraries to absorb.
11:45
And finally, and maybe most importantly,
fines cost us money to collect.
11:50
When you start to factor in
all of the ways that we collect fines,
11:56
supplies like mailers that we send out
to remind people of their fines,
11:59
services, like collections
management services,
12:05
even telephone and email notifications
can cost libraries money.
12:09
And staff time is a huge
cost for libraries.
12:13
So that our frontline staff
is standing there,
12:17
talking to people about their fines,
sometimes arguing with people about fines.
12:20
When we eliminate all of those pieces,
12:25
if we got rid of fines, we might actually
save money in our libraries.
12:27
Or at the very least,
12:31
we would be able
to reallocate our staff time
12:33
to pursuits that better fit
those missions we talked about.
12:35
The other thing I want everybody
to come away understanding
12:40
is that fines don't actually work
to do what we think they do.
12:43
The debate about fines --
12:46
whether we should fine,
how much we should fine, it isn't new.
12:47
We've been talking about it
for almost 100 years.
12:50
As long as that book was overdue.
12:54
Study after study has shown
that the reason libraries fine
12:58
is because of strongly held beliefs
13:02
about the effectiveness
of getting materials back on time
13:04
backed by no evidence.
13:07
Basically, we fine
because we've always fined.
13:10
So, the best option for your libraries
is to put their mission first.
13:14
And they will do that
if their community members ask it of them.
13:20
When you leave here,
I hope you'll visit your public library
13:24
and talk to your librarians,
13:27
talk to your neighbors
and community members
13:29
who serve on library boards.
13:31
Tell them that you know
how important literacy is
13:32
to everyone in your community.
13:36
That if our libraries
are truly for everyone,
13:39
that they have to get rid of fines
and embrace their entire community.
13:43
Thank you.
13:47
(Applause)
13:48

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About the speaker:

Dawn Wacek - Librarian
Dawn Wacek advocates for equitable library service for all community members.

Why you should listen

More than fifteen years in librarianship, Dawn Wacek has eliminated barriers to access in urban and rural libraries. She has helped create fine reduction programs and developed free and open access policies everywhere she has worked.

Wacek is the Youth Services Manager of the La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin, where she is working on increasing community relationships and collaborations to better connect all users to their library.

More profile about the speaker
Dawn Wacek | Speaker | TED.com