Fine forgiveness urges youngsters to check out library again

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A few times each week, Janneth Mejia-Figueroa visits the Kingsbridge branch library, bringing her three children.

While the family enjoys many of the library’s programs and they take the time to read books, there’s one thing her children could not do: Take books or DVDs home. Why? They have overdue fines of $15 or more, and until that’s paid, they’re blocked from enjoying the library from anywhere except the library itself.

That changed Oct. 19 when the New York Public Library announced a one-time automatic fine forgiveness program for cardholders 17 and younger, while high school students 18 and older could come in to clear fines in person by Nov. 2.

It’s not that Mejia-Figueroa’s kids were irresponsible. Each child has their own library card, and it can be tricky sometimes to keep track of everything.

“Sometimes you tend to forget,” she said.

While the move offered younger cardholders the opportunity to check out materials once again, it also served as a way for reintroducing library programming to older patrons.

“When we throw something out like this, it’s like a reminder to the public that, ‘Oh, yeah, I haven’t been to the library in a long time,’” said Martha Gonzalez Buitrago, manager of the Kingsbridge branch, located at 291 W. 231st St. “‘I don’t owe fines, but let’s see what’s going on at the library.’”

Young cardholders who returned to the branch said they were scared to come to the library because they accrued fines over the limit. In the first week, some 60 patrons returned who had not been to the branches in years.

Amnesty also resulted in an increased number of long-lost books returned to the branch, Gonzalez Buitrago said.

“A lot of times parents can’t afford to make payment on the cards, and they try to pay a bit at a time,” said Nicola McDonald, the branch manager at Jerome Park, located at 118 Eames Place. As long as accrued fines were less than $15, cardholders could still borrow materials.

Peter Pamphile, Van Cortlandt Village’s branch manager said one father came to the Sedgwick Avenue location to inquire about his son’s status and pay any fine necessary.

“Dad was smiling and happy, and almost gave me a handshake,” Pamphile said, after learning his son did not owe any fees.

The move also returned some young cardholders between 11 and 13 who were last at the branch when they were just old enough to read, Pamphile said.
“I’ve had at least 15 to 20 kids coming in checking out again,” he said.

Late fees on books, periodicals and pamphlets is up to 25 cents per day, according to the library system’s website. DVDs, however, are a different story. Fines there can be as much as $3 each day.

Van Cortlandt Village had the highest number of blocked cards at 17 percent. Kingsbridge and Jerome Park were not far behind at 16 and 14 percent, respectively.

The Spuyten Duyvil, Riverdale and Bronx Center branches had the lower percentages in the area, falling between 8 and 13 percent.

The Countee Cullen branch in Harlem had the highest percentage of all blocked cardholders at 30 percent while the Mid-Manhattan Branch had the lowest at 2 percent, according to library data. Of those children and teens with blocked cards, nearly half came from branches in lower-income communities.

The library didn’t lose that potential revenue. Instead, they were reimbursed through a grant from the JPB Foundation, which covered 20 percent of its young cardholders. That equated to nearly $2.3 million in collected fines, according to the library’s website.

Late fee revenue helps off-set costs for staffing, books and programming.
The one-time fine forgiveness became a learning opportunity for her two elder children, Mejia-Figueroa said.

“They are now more aware they are not to keep things more than three weeks for the book or the one week they give for the movies,” she said. “They are more understanding and more responsible … (and) a little bit more conscious.”

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