Chicago is about to become the largest city in the United States to abolish most types of library fines, ending a practice that opponents say drove away low-income people who most need their local library and who can least afford to pay financial penalties.

More than 340,000 Chicagoans have been banned from checking out materials because of unpaid fines. One in 5 suspended cards, or 68,000, belong to children younger than 14, who need research materials for school, pursue an ever-changing list of interests and, ideally, learn to love reading along the way. Kids don’t control their own schedules and finances. Denying them books to take home is a harsh penalty.

As of Tuesday, all fines were eliminated on library items already in circulation, and fees won’t rack up as quickly anymore. Many loans will automatically renew up to 15 times unless someone is waiting for the item, and there’s a higher debt limit before a user’s library privileges are suspended: $30, up from $10.

Even in the most practical accounting, the city has little reason to discourage people from using the library. Providing the community with access to a safe place to pursue knowledge improves literacy, civic engagement, health and job preparedness. Revenue from fines comprises a minuscule part of the library budget. And these seemingly small penalties aren’t equally affordable for everyone. In the library’s South District, 1 in 3 library cards are suspended; in the North District, it’s 1 in 6.

Other cities are taking similar approaches, concluding that fines do little to encourage timely returns and that using penalties to impose lessons of personal responsibility is beyond the scope of library policy.

Under Chicago’s plan, borrowers will still be held accountable for their use of library materials, and those who truly abuse the system will find themselves on the outs soon enough. They face similar consequences as before – replacement charges and lost borrowing privileges – when items are not turned in after the more forgiving loan period. That debt can now be erased without payment if the item is returned later.

Society benefits from a literate, well-informed citizenry. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board crusaded for a free library both before and immediately after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; the Chicago Public Library was founded in 1873. A campaign for public libraries at the time argued that democracy depends upon equal access to knowledge. A “library shall be free as air,” the Tribune said.

The system needs to impose rules to protect and manage its collection and budget. But making cash penalties rare is a step toward that ideal.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE (TNS)

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