Evanston Library officials tackle blocked card issue
Officials are not planning a big publicity push. Their focus would be on contacting individual patrons, with a “Welcome back, we’ve missed you” message, Evanston Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons told members of the Library Board Wednesday. | File
Updated: April 29, 2013 10:01AM
EVANSTON — Evanston Public Library officials are looking at some creative solutions to the problem of blocked library cards, including staging a campaign for National Library Week (April 14-20) that would clear the fines of every card blocked before April 14, 2012 so long as the cardholders have no missing items.
Under the proposal, library officials would alert patrons who fall in the category – by email or U.S. mail – that their cards have been reinstated.
Officials are not planning a big publicity push. Their focus would be on contacting individual patrons, with a “Welcome back, we’ve missed you” message, Evanston Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons told members of the Library Board Wednesday.
Staff members aren’t talking about getting rid of fines altogether, but they want to bring back patrons who are not using library services, because of a fine in their past.
The library’s campaign wants to emphasize that, “You’re not going to owe us $1,000 (in fines) for “The Cat in the Hat,” Lyons said. “I just don’t feel any child should be afraid to come to the library.”
Blocked cards have long been a source of concern for library officials who, under Lyons – once the second in command in the Chicago system – are making a concerted effort to encourage underserved members of the Evanston community.
Out of an estimated 50,000 cardholders, Aan analysis of data showed 1,613 Evanston patrons were blocked for fines, with a last activity date prior to April 2012.
Library Board members gave Lyons strong backing Wednesday to move forward with the program.
“I think, for us, it’s really important,” said Library Board President Ben Schapiro. “The people most likely hit by loss of library cards due to fines are people in the low income brackets in this community, and we also know those are the people who need library services the most.”
In a memo on the issue, staff members acknowledged that fines for late items, which originally designed to encourage prompt returns of materials, are also a significant revenue generator for the library, contributing $126,000 to the budget last year.
At the same time, many libraries , especially those in urban areas, have begun to “recognize that fines can be a disincentive to lower income patrons,” wrote Lyons who – along with Leslee Williams, head of adult services, Connie Heneghan, head of neighborhood services, and Janice Bojda, head of youth services – was the author of a memo on the issue.
“Families who check out large numbers of picture books discover that the fines mount up quickly,” staff members noted. “Small children, initially enthusiastic about their first library card, return their books late (or not at all) and then face the shame of being told their cards are blocked.
Staff members also have had “numerous encounters with teen and 20-something residents who no longer use the library because of their blocked cards,” officials reported. Some teachers say they no longer bring their classes to the library because “too many of their students have blocked cards to make it worthwhile,” they said.
Blocked causes may happen for many reasons, staff said. “Low-income families typically experience many chaotic social circumstances: frequent moves, unstable employment and chronic illness,” staff said.
“The children in these families often experience custody changes and may move several times within a short period. Cards in the child’s name may be used by several family members, and become blocked with fines by the time the child reaches middle school, even when the child has not checked out any materials.”
Staff members examined a number of possible solutions, including grace periods, amnesty and even food for fines and read downs, where patrons are asked to bring in canned food in lieu of fines; or children can come into the library and read a certain number of pages to get their fines waived.
They also looked at going fine free. An obvious disadvantage is loss of revenue,” staff said. In addition, “doing away with fines completely would be seen as fiscally irresponsible by many in the community. Most patrons do not object to paying moderate fines occasionally; they see it as a painless way to contribute to the library,” and the system serves as a “check on patrons who keep materials too long.”