It might seem odd that a librarian would rack up regular late fines, but Dawn Wacek, like most of us, is sometimes running late, misplaces a book or two or even loses a DVD to the sofa, discovered months later, cracked and useless.

But while Wacek can afford her fines — about $500 worth over the years — many patrons can’t, and in a TEDx Talk titled “Free is Key: Library Fines and Access,” posted online last week, Wacek argued for library late fees to be done away with entirely.

“Is that fair and equitable service if some of us can pay our fines and others cannot?” asked Wacek, the youth services manager for the La Crosse Public Library. “Books have power, information has power and for the powerless in our communities, being able to connect to that is even more important.”

It was Wacek’s talk, recorded last February at a TEDxUWLaCrosse event, that helped encourage the La Crosse Public Library Board of Directors to test drive a new policy, eliminating late fines on most items during a trial period that began July 1 and will extend to the end of June 2019. Thus far, the model has proven a success.

“We’re hearing from a lot of families how much they appreciate this and what a big difference it’s made for them,” Wacek said. “They don’t stress about sending their kids in with a library card.”

Adjusting the standard fee policy was on Wacek’s mind since she first started at the La Crosse Public Library in January 2016, having come from a library that had just eliminated late fines for children’s items. Fees are put in place to encourage responsibility and prompt returns, as well as to cushion the library’s operating budget, Wacek acknowledged in her TEDx Talk, but they are minimally effective for their intended purposes.

Fines not a stable source of revenue, making up around 1 to 1.5 percent of the La Crosse Public Library’s operating budget, and by eliminating its contract with collection management services and shifting staff to more mission-relevant tasks, the library has been able to absorb the difference. Return rates have also increased, according to circulation staff, with patrons no longer fearing penalization or reprimand for bringing items in past due.

Libraries have a reputation for caring about communities, Wacek said, champions of democracy and advocates of early literacy. But the good intentions are counteracted with fines and fees, which prevented the approximately 10,000 community members owing $10 or more from checking out materials on any given day.

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“If you struggle financially and you make a mistake, suddenly we’re not here for you so much anymore because we make you pay for it,” Wacek said in her TEDx Talk, noting a woman had likened a library card to “another credit card I can’t pay” to a library staff member.

Wacek touched on “the 30-million-word gap,” a term introduced by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 1995 to explain the discrepancy between the number of words heard by children in low income versus higher income families. Beyond simply the number is the diversity of the words heard, with exposure to nouns and verbs beyond the standard lexicon attributed to greater reading skills. During her talk, Wacek read a page from “Slowly, Slowly, Slowly Said The Sloth,” which is peppered with some 20 synonyms and descriptors, such as “flaccid” and “sluggish.”

“Books level the playing field by introducing children of all socioeconomic backgrounds to words,” Wacek said.

While Wacek advocated against a “Netflix-style” policy,in which patrons are unable to check out more items until others are returned, she says the library’s decision to block checkout after the three-week period passes is “not an unreasonable compromise.” Items without holds can still be renewed for an additional two weeks, with the exception of “Lucky Day” items, the late return of which will continue to result in fines.

Patrons are still required to pay for damaged or lost items, though Wacek says there is more leniency. Rather than charge full retail cost for a lost DVD, for example, staff will “adjust the cost to reflect reality,” such as how long the item has been in circulation and whether the retail price is now significantly lower.

Wacek says she foresees the new policies extending beyond the trial period, and the library has been discussing quarterly promotions such as amnesty days or Food for Fines, waiving fees in exchange for food pantry donations.

“I’m really pleased the library has decided to go this route,” Wacek said. “It wasn’t just me: It was the library board, mangagement, everyone came together and said, ‘This makes sense.’”

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Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.


General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers health, human interest stories and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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