BEN FRANKLIN was one of our greatest visionaries and the founder of the first public library in America. I wonder what Franklin would think of the "visionaries" now running the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Library is asking the city of Philadelphia to restore a 20 percent funding cut, while, through a new policy, it is losing $70,000 in fines that it collects from customers who lose or are late in returning borrowed materials.
Losing that money is important, but more important is that their new policy exempts kids 12 and under from any fines and allows them to take out books and other materials if they still owe money.
On my radio show on 1210 AM, Joe McPeak, one of the Library's directors, explained the necessity and wisdom of the plan. He argued that if poor kids couldn't take out books because of the fines that they can't afford to pay, then they would stop reading, and this would increase their chances of not doing well in school and ultimately greatly increase their chances of dropping out of school.
McPeak told the Inquirer that "the whole idea of children's programs is to get them to read. We believe that this outbalances that loss of revenue. What's the cost of learning loss? What's the cost of a kid dropping out of school? That's how you have to look at this."
McPeak told me on my show that he wants to ignore the other, bigger cost of this policy. What is the cost of removing from kids the notion of learning personal responsibility? What's the cost of taking away another life lesson?
The fine for kids for overdue books and other materials is 5 cents a day, with a $2 maximum fine. Is this really crushing for kids and their families? If it can be shown that it is, I propose that they adopt a 1-cent-a-day fine with a maximum fine of 25 cents. Would the penny-a-day standard be crushing? It would still be a standard, and that is what I think the Free Library would object to.
They apparently want to follow the example of the public libraries in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Oakland, which have taken this enlightened stance. This is more evidence that this not about access, but agenda. I think the architects of this plan want increased taxpayer money but don't want to reflect the mind-set of taxpayers that says that it's a good thing to teach all kids that there are consequences to poor decisions.
Even City Council seems to agree with me. Councilman David Oh, along with Councilmen Brian O'Neill and Bill Green, have introduced a bill to block this move. It will be very interesting to hear the debate in the august body on this one. Let me predict that defenders of the Free Library policy will suggest that it is somehow mean-spirited to insist that kids be fined if they don't return their books on time so that the books may more quickly circulate to others. There might even be political consequences for Green, a possible mayoral candidate. He might be accused of stopping poor kids from reading. I think Councilman Chatterblast, a/k/a Jim Kenney, could rescind his Twitter expenses charged to taxpayers and buy many rounds of overdue library fines for Philadelphia's kids.
This bill and the policy are signs of how far we've gone in Philadelphia with utter nonsense. The libraries, from their inception, have been refuges and great aids to generations of poor and middle-class kids. I remember fondly the first time I was allowed to walk from my house in South Philly to go to the library at 20th and Shunk. That library still stands, and it serves kids, but it is not enhanced by allowing some kids to not buy into the rules.
The Free Library has violated this covenant before in regard to allowing the homeless to dominate several libraries and to make those libraries often less-inviting to others. Of course, the libraries should be there to serve everyone. That's why sensible rules and standards are needed to effectively make everything work.
So, I think Joe McPeak and the other Library directors are well-intentioned, but dead wrong. It shouldn't take a law to bring them to their senses. Let them know as taxpayers and patrons of the Free Library that kids won't drop out if they have to pay a fine. Let them know that kids returning books on time connects them to others waiting for books and helps them learn the mind-set, useful later in life, of being on time with research papers, credit-card payments and job reports.
I think Ben Franklin would agree.