Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Literacy push: L.A. libraries allow young people to read away their fines

Why We Wrote This

The punishment was well intentioned. Los Angeles public libraries wanted to cut down on lost books. But the real solution didn't come until they considered what they really wanted: more kids reading more books. 

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters/File
A man and his grandson patronize the East Los Angeles Library, part of the L.A. County Library system. Whenever anyone age 21 or younger racks up fines, the library invites them to 'read away' those charges – at the rate of $5 per hour.

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Libraries are starting to think differently about lost and late books, particularly those checked out by young people. Some are waiving late fees outright. The Los Angeles County Library, in addition to recently doing that, is also letting anyone 21 and younger “read away” prior fines and charges for lost books. The Great Read Away is part of a multipart initiative that aims to eliminate policies or programs that impede citizen access to services. Since the program began in June 2017, the county’s 87 libraries have logged more than 29,000 reading sessions and lowered fines accordingly. Among those benefiting from the program is 10-year-old Dariana Martinez, a fourth-grader at Fourth Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles. She says she had racked up “about $30” in fines and has now reduced that to less than $10 through reading during weekly visits to the library. “The Read Away program helped me, 'cause a lot of the time I forget my books and my mom has to pay,” she says. “So when my mom heard about Read Away, she was really happy.”

Twelve-year-old Sergio Garay, a sixth grader at Griffith STEAM Magnet Middle School, loves going to his local branch library in East Los Angeles. In fact, he loves the library so much he reads and studies there almost every day after school.

But recently, Sergio was in danger of losing his library privileges: He’d been reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” a popular page-turner for preteens, “and I forgot it at school one day.”

He’d stowed the book in its proper place, he says, “and then it disappeared. A lot of people steal other kids' books.”

The cost of replacing that book was more than $10 – and any time a cardholder’s fines go past that amount their borrowing privileges get frozen. Sergio didn’t have that kind of cash, so not only was he unable to find out what happened to the Wimpy Kid, but he wasn’t allowed to check out any other books.

Had Sergio’s book been stolen a year ago, he would have had to wait until he came up with enough money to pay off his library debt. But because the Los Angeles County Library embarked on a campaign to remove impediments that keep residents from patronizing their public libraries, Sergio discovered a way to pay off his fines without spending a dime – a program for young readers called the Great Read Away.

Whenever anyone age 21 or younger racks up fines, the library invites them to “read away” those charges – at the rate of $5 per hour. Since the program began in June of 2017, the county’s 87 libraries have logged more than 29,000 reading sessions, and lowered fines accordingly. During the program’s first 11 months, young readers logged 1.6 million minutes of reading time, and 10,000 accounts were cleared completely of fines.

In the time before the Great Read Away, “when someone lost a borrowed book they not only had to pay the cost of the lost book, but the library also added a $10 processing fee,” explains Darcy Hastings, assistant library administrator for youth services. “Now, if you’re a kid, and you lose a $4.95 paperback, and then we tack on another $10, what are we saying to you? We’ve taken your $5 mistake and turned it into a $15 mistake.

“You may not want to tell your mom,” Ms. Hastings says. “You may not want to come to us and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake. Can we work something out?’ You’re just going to stop using your library card. And that doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help us.”

Increasing library use

The Los Angeles County Library serves nearly 3.5 million residents, and Hastings says a search of its records found 13 percent of children’s library accounts were inactive because their fines or fees were above $10, “so we know they weren’t using their cards.”

County Library Director Skye Patrick inspired the Great Read Away when she made it the library’s mission to eliminate policies or programs that impeded citizen access to services. It was tied to a multi-part initiative approved unanimously by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Following a no-fine month in May of 2017, the library instituted the Great Read Away program. It then partnered with local schools, sending in library staff to help students discover the array of services and resources available to them.

“We visit schools and bring special student library cards to issue to kids right there in their classrooms,” Hastings explains. “In the first six months of the student card program we visited over 700 classrooms and issued over 15,500 student library cards.”

More recently, in December, the Board of Supervisors voted to end late fees altogether for patrons 21 and younger from that point on. Young people who had fines before that time, and those who lose books, are still candidates for the Great Read Away program. 

At the East Los Angeles Library, manager Martin Delgado says more than 2,000 people from the working-class neighborhood come through the doors on a typical day. “We average about 150 individuals per month doing the Read Away program. It makes my staff and I feel really good – because this really is a literacy program, and everyone’s reaping the benefit.”

Popular with parents

One of those 2,000 users is 10-year-old Dariana Martinez, a fourth grader at Fourth Street Elementary School. She had racked up “about $30” in fines and says, in a soft voice, “I felt pretty sad – because I had to waste that money, and the money could be used for getting food and clothes and better stuff.”

As her mother waited in another room, Dariana explains that she reads away her fines “mostly every time I come to the library, every week.” Her fine is now below $10.

“The Read Away program helped me, ‘cause a lot of the time I forget my books, and my mom has to pay,” she says. “So when my mom heard about Read Away, she was really happy.”

Which is all part of the library’s greater literacy plan: “We do a short survey with some parents and over 80 percent of them tell us that they’re more willing to bring their kids to the library and let them check out materials because we now have the Great Read Away,” Hastings says. “They know that if a fine results because of a book forgotten at home then their child can read down the fine.”

Sergio calculates he has about two and a half hours remaining before he unblocks his library card. “Read Away has made me more responsible,” Sergio says. He adds: “I know that if I forget to turn in a book, I can read away the fines.” And that means he can keep reading.

Hastings points to research that looks at a pivotal phase in all children’s lives, “right around the end of the third grade, when their education switches from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’ It’s like learning to play the trumpet or running the quarter mile: You have to practice to become good at it.

“If reading down a fine can encourage just a little more practice, that’s great,” she says. “Kids practice reading, their library cards can be used again, they check out more books and read more. Everyone wins.”

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