City Councilman David Oh Is Wrong About Collecting Kids’ Library Fines

Why Philly children with overdue books should get fine forgiveness.

I get where David Oh is coming from. But with all due respect, the Councilman is wrong.

Yesterday, WHYY’s Tom MacDonald reported that the Councilman proposed a bill that would stymie the Free Library of Philadelphia’s intentions to stop charging late fees to children on their overdue books.

In a story that’s easy to spin as Oh shaking down kids for the change in their pockets—Oh says we could be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in nickels and dimes, while Free Library chief operating officer Joe McPeak says its more like $70,000—the fees aren’t really the issue.

Council is in the middle of hearings on the city budget, and the Free Library is asking for a $2 million increase in funding ($1 million more than proposed by the administration). Hence the Republican’s preference for a tax/fee of one sort in the face of a much bigger increase. And yes, I suppose it’s fair to ask why, when the library is asking for more money, is it ridding itself of a (modest) revenue source. But Oh wasn’t on Council back in 2008 when the Free Library famously had its budget cut by more than $7 million—leading to some closures, odd hours and general confusion—and, according to my former City Paper colleague Isaiah Thompson over at AxisPhilly, hasn’t seen a bump since.

The Free Library’s rationale for eliminating fines for children is that it feels that kids who have already demonstrated a strong desire to read are being turned away from libraries when their cards are de-activated due to late fees. Oh’s other rationale for keeping the fines is that they teach responsibility. Which, sure, I get. But in a city with a staggering illiteracy problem and a money pit of a school system, teaching kids to read, and to love reading, is a much bigger priority.

Where the Free Library could meet Oh halfway would be to not simply offer fine amnesty, but to take a page from the New York Public Library, which also pardoned child fine scofflaws, but did so through a read-down-your-debt summer reading program. In New York, kids knock $1 off their debt for every 15 minutes spent reading. A similar program would dovetail nicely with the Free Library’s already-announced 20-million-minute summer reading challenge.

I think Oh’s intentions are good: The library and kids should be fiscally responsible. But the policy is myopic, and the reluctance to invest in community libraries is backward.

Anyone concerned about money for programming should compare McPeak’s $70,000 annual revenue estimate to the $7 million-plus budget fall-out during the depths of the financial crisis (fast math: $70,000 is one percent of $7 million). Then they should commend the library for keeping the wheels from falling off, and dig deep to fund the kinds of programs that’ll turn kids into curious, knowledge-hungry and ultimately successful adults. The loose change we’ll give up now will come back more than a hundred-fold once they’re tax-paying adults—which they’ve got a much better chance of becoming if we don’t treat their desire to learn (and occasional transgressions) as a cash register.