For its anniversary, the Philadelphia library hosted a Fine Forgiveness Week. Now the entire Free Library of Philadelphia system is fine-free.
The Free Library of Philadelphia received a 2017 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to implement the Skills for Community-Centered Libraries Initiative. The project’s goal is to create a practical curriculum to build community engagement capacity in 300 staff members at all levels.
November 29, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of the Kingsessing Library opening its doors to the public at 51st and Kingsessing Avenues. The Free Library of Philadelphia toasted this occasion by making the entire week that followed into Fine Forgiveness Week at the Kingsessing location.
This initiative was both an exciting prelude to our recent announcement that the entire Free Library system is now fine-free and a fitting conclusion to Kingsessing staff’s participation in the Skills for Community-Centered Libraries trainings.
From December 2 – 6, 2019, library users poured into the building to get their fines forgiven. Calling them "library users," however, is a bit of a misnomer. Free Library staff and volunteers surveyed folks coming in for this jubilee, and a full half of them stated that their fines had kept them from using the library.
This is consistent with nationwide data, which led the American Library Association to pass a resolution in 2019 stating that "monetary fines present an economic barrier to access," and that "there is mounting evidence that indicates eliminating fines increases library card adoption and library usage."
Those surveyed at Kingsessing that week backed up that resolution with their personal experience. When asked what fine forgiveness would mean for libraries, responses included:
- "People would feel free inside to use the resources."
- "Family literacy would increase."
- "We will be here all the time now."
- "People wouldn't be ashamed."
Looking at ALA’s national analysis alongside these earnest quotes from Kingsessing neighbors, library staff can see that forgiving fines was not forfeiting funds. That money wasn’t a payment that would have come eventually; it was a permanent barrier to entry for individuals and families who had largely stopped using library services.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, that barrier has the greatest effect on those living paycheck to paycheck, which is a sizeable chunk of potential Free Library users in this, the poorest big city in America where 26% of the population lives below the federal poverty line.
Since 2018, Free Library staff have been going through Skills for Community-Centered Libraries trainings, made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These trainings have challenged staff to find innovative methods to engage our communities, especially those community members who don’t currently use their neighborhood libraries. Removing the barrier of overdue fines is just such a method.
In fact, just days after Kingsessing’s Fine Forgiveness Week ended, the Free Library announced that the Board of Trustees voted to go fine-free system-wide. Board Chair Pamela Dembe stated, "We look forward to welcoming back many customers and long-missing materials in the near future."
Kingsessing Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia look forward to welcoming back everyone who has avoided the library due to fines, thereby helping to build an inclusive library for all!
Blog post author Ben Remsen is a library supervisor at Kingsessing Library and a participant in Cohort 2 of the Skills for Community-Centered Libraries trainings.