Towards a Fine-Free Future: A Funder Tackles a Barrier to Public Library Engagement

photo: mintimages

photo: mintimages

Recent coverage of public library giving can be summarized in a single word: access.

Funders including the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Jim and Marilyn Simons envision U.S. public libraries as open community spaces fostering inclusivity and collaboration, devoid of what economists would call "barriers to entry."

But what about the financial barriers facing the precise demographic these funders aim to reach—namely poor kids?

At first, this seems like a strange question. After all, public libraries are free, right? Not so fast, says the New York City-based JPB Foundation.

On October 19th, the city’s three library systems—the New York Public Library, which serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, the Queens Library and the Brooklyn Public Library—forgave all fines for children 17 and under and unblocked their cards thanks to the foundation, which made a $2.25 million donation to cover the revenue shortfall.

By funding the library system's surprisingly costly amnesty program, JPB calls to light a problematic and age-old obstacle to public library engagement: library fines.

As the New York Times notes, patrons who rack up $15 in late fees at the city’s public libraries are blocked from taking out more books until the fine is paid. (This seems rather draconian, doesn't it?) What's more, among those with suspended privileges are 160,000 children (!), most of them from the city’s poorest neighborhoods, who cannot afford to pay.

The amnesty "is a dramatic way to message to kids and young adults that we want you back, and we want you reading," said Anthony W. Marx, the president of the New York Public Library.

It's encouraging news, but what happens next? Most of these 160,000 children, sad to say, will remain poor, and a portion will inevitably rack up new late fees and be shut out of what is supposed to be an inclusive and accessible library experience.

This, of course, isn't news to Marx, or to Dennis M. Walcott, the president of the Queens Library system, who described the one-time amnesty as a necessary "experiment" that may help determine if a fine-free future is possible.

The math here is a bit dicey. Marx notes that the library systems currently rely on the revenue from fines to fund certain programs, and abolishing fines would naturally threaten this stream. Fines also provide a deterrent to theft and ensure that books are available. Checked-out library books that aren't returned in a timely fashion can't be borrowed by others. 

All that being said, other cities have offered up alternative models worth considering.

According to the Times, since 2015, the District of Columbia’s Public Library System has not penalized children 19 and under for late or lost materials, expanding on its already fee-free policy for children’s books. And San Francisco offered a six-week fine forgiveness period this year, during which it unblocked the cards of more than 5,000 people and recovered nearly 700,000 items.

All of which brings me back to the foundation behind the gift.

The JPB Foundation keeps a very low profile for a grantmaker that last reported assets of $3.7 billion and more than $150 million in annual giving. But if you work in one of JPB's three programs—poverty, medical research or the environment—this funder is probably on your radar. Its sudden emergence in recent years as a major grantmaker in these areas is a textbook example of how the landscape of philanthropy is being reshaped as fortunes made during recent boom times are harnessed to giving. 

The wealth behind JPB was earned by the late investor Jeffry Picower, who did so well financially that even after his estate settled $7.2 billion in claims related to the Bernie Madoff scandal in 2010, there were still billions left over to fuel a large-scale philanthropic enterprise headed up by Barbara Picower. 

Barbara, who we included in our list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Philanthropy, is the JPB Foundation's president and chair, and has taken a hands-on approach to scaling it up over the past few years. Big gifts include a $25 million gift to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and $2.5 million toward the Great Urban Parks Campaign. But what's really interesting about JPB, if you're in the progressive policy world, is the scope of its support to organizations working on equity and sustainability. In a short time, JPB has become a key funder in these areas. Barbara Picower may like to operate under the radar, but make no mistake: JPB is a force to be reckoned with.  

And while the foundation's library "amnesty" gift may not fall within its primary focus areas of poverty, medical research, and the environment, it nonetheless fits within a larger philanthropic context which finds funders exploring ways to combat inequality and promote social justice.

After all, what good is the New York Public Library's bold $200 million redesign, conjured to remove "perceived barriers to access" throughout the system, if tens of thousands of disadvantaged kids can't check out books?