Get smarter, faster. Subscribe to our daily newsletter.
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."
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.
- Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
- C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
- The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
Shunk et al.<p>Additionally, the fungus is self-replicating, meaning astronauts would potentially be able to "grow" new radiation shielding on deep-space missions, instead of having to rely on a costly and complicated interplanetary supply chain.</p><p>Still, the researchers weren't sure whether <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would survive on the space station. Nils J.H. Averesch, a co-author of the <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.16.205534v1.full.pdf" target="_blank">study published on the preprint server bioRxiv</a>, told <a href="https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/fungus-that-eats-radiation-could-be-cosmic-ray-shield" target="_blank">SYFY WIRE</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While on Earth, most sources of radiation are gamma- and/or X-rays; radiation in space and on Mars (also known as GCR or galactic cosmic radiation) is of a completely different kind and involves highly energetic particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X- and gamma-rays, so not even survival of the fungus on the ISS was a given."</p>
International Space Station
NASA<p>To be sure, the researchers said more research is needed, and that <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would likely be used in combination with other radiation-shielding technology aboard spacecraft. But the findings highlight how relatively simple biotechnologies may offer outsized benefits on upcoming space missions.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond," the researchers wrote.</p>
Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
- One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."