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America’s largest public library ditches late fees
With the realization that overdue charges disproportionately affect access for low-income readers, libraries are reconsidering the value of fees.
- The Chicago Public Library found that a third of their economically disadvantaged members had been denied borrowing privileges due to overdue books.
- Overdue fines account for a tiny fraction of library funding, so the ramifications of ending them are more social than financial.
- Though 92% of U.S. libraries still charge late fees, the number is shrinking.
Whether we're out to quench a thirst for information or lose ourselves in story, checking out a book from a public library may start the first tick of a worrisome clock. It's the time interval in which the book has to be read and returned before the imposition of a rapidly accumulating late-return fee begins. Though the fees are generally fairly small, the threat of them does introduce a measure of pressure that can be just enough to make some — especially those stretching each dollar — decide not to bother in the first place. This is especially true for people who would also have to lay out money to get themselves to the library in the first place.
Late fees conflict with the reason we have public libraries as stated at the opening of the first public library in the U.S.:
"Above all…the first regard should be shown…to the wants of those, who can, in no other way supply themselves with the interesting and healthy reading necessary for their farther education."
With wealth inequality continuing to accelerate in the U.S., more and more libraries around the country are reconsidering the negative effect of late fees. In October, the largest public library in the U.S., the Chicago Public Library, announced they were doing away with them. (92% of U.S. libraries still have late fees.)
The purpose and history of public libraries
The Boston Public Library
Image source: Mark Zhu/Shutterstock
"Of all the human arts, that of writing, as it was one of the earliest invented, is also one of the most important. Perhaps it would be safe to pronounce it, without exception, the most useful and important. It is the great medium of communication between mind and mind, as respects different individuals, countries, and periods of time. We know from history that only those portions of the human family have made any considerable and permanent progress in civilization, which have possessed and used this great instrument of improvement." — First trustees report, Boston Public Library, 1854.
The first public library in the U.S. was the Boston Public library, and the quote immediately above laying out its purpose — as well as the quote in the previous section — were written in its report to library trustees as the library opened its doors to the general population in 1854.
Prior to this, libraries were mostly personal book collections, at best available only to an owner's family, friends, and associates.
Benjamin Franklin owned over 4,000 books, and in 1731 created the first subscription library, or "social library," as a means of exchanging books within Philadelphia's literary society. In 1762, William Rind in Annapolis, Maryland, opened the first circulation library, an innovation that saw print shops and bookstores renting out books. School libraries provided reading materials to their students.
In 1833, the first organization we might recognize as a public library was started in Peterborough, New Hampshire, as the result of an unexpected windfall. New Hampshire had raised tax money for a state college that never made it off the ground and had to find something education-related to do with the money — they disbursed it to towns around the state. Peterborough used its share for a library for its citizens. It was a well-received idea, and in 1849, the state became the first to enact a law empowering municipalities to raise tax money for libraries.
Just five years later the first truly public library opened in Boston.
Chicago Public Library’s announcement
Mural on Chicago's South Side
Image source: Terence Faircloth/Flickr
Chicago Public Library Commissioner Andrea Telli told the Chicago Sun-Times, "I think our staff members are going to be practically jumping over their circulation desks to tell people that fines have been eliminated."
They'll also want to get word out to the 343,208 former patrons who've lost their library privileges to overdue fines. Data recently collected by the library reveals that one in three cardholders in the city's low-income South District is among that number. One in five of those is under 14, children who would benefit from access to the library's books. In more affluent areas, by contrast, just one in six cardholders has been penalized.
Eliminating the fines aims to return the library system to those most in need of it. Telli said, "We're removing one of the most important barriers."
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who supports the change, said in a statement, "Like too many Chicagoans, I know what it is like to grow up in financially challenging circumstances and understand what it is like to be just one bill or one mistake away from crushing debt."
Chicago is not alone in finding late fees disproportionately affecting its less-monied cardholders. In San Francisco, whose own San Francisco Public Library got rid of late fees last month, 5% of members could no longer borrow, with the majority of them living in low-income communities, African-American communities, and areas with fewer college graduates. Each of those who'd lost library privileges, on average, owed about $24 in late fees.
Curtis Rogers of the Urban Libraries Council told CityLab's Linda Poon, "Overdue fines are not distinguishing between people who are responsible and who are not. They're distinguishing between people who can and cannot use money to overcome a common oversight."
Why bother charging late fees anyway?
Image source: Thought Catalog/Unsplash
Libraries cost money. Books must be purchased, facilities paid for, and staff compensated. Nonetheless, late fees constitute just a tiny fraction of a library's budget. As a big library system, the Chicago Public Library collects nearly a million dollars each year through fines, but that represents less than 1% of their annual budget. Rogers says the impact of fees' elimination has proven negligible for other libraries, and may even save them money since personnel and time no longer need to be allocated to collecting them.
Some consider overdue fees a form of discipline that can reduce the number of books lost to people who never return them, though a 1983 study found that this isn't so over time. And, in any event, says Dawn Wacekof of La Crosse Public Library in Wisconsin, "I don't think it's our task, or that it's mission-centric, any more than teaching people manners is. Our role is to provide access to information."
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.