In a move aimed at deepening a childhood love of reading, Douglas County Libraries plans to stop charging overdue fines on many children's books. The new policy applies to illustrated juvenile books and takes effect Jan. 17.
"I want two outcomes (from this)," said library district director Jamie LaRue. "One is more books in people's homes. The second is that I want people to understand that there is no better investment they can make in the mind of their child than to get as many books in front of them as possible."
The fine-free policy doesn't apply to all children's materials, but to those he describes as picture books.
"These are the large colorful books, typically with an illustration on each page but also a great deal of text," LaRue said. "They tend to be the books that are read to them by the parents."
The books, he said, "probably constitute the bulk of our business. After DVDs, we check out more of these than we do anything else. But I keep running across parents who tell me really shame-facedly, 'I have so many fines.' Once I heard a mother say to her son, 'You can only check out one book this week because we have so many fines.'
"I thought, why am I punishing people who are doing the right thing for their children? Take out 20 books. Read them all."
LaRue's belief in the power of books stems from research, including the results of a 20-year study published in the journal, "Research in Social Stratification and Mobility." It showed the importance of early exposure to books - lots of books.
Data compiled from 27 countries showed that children in homes with a 500-book library or greater achieve a higher level of education than those with less exposure to books. The positive influence of home libraries, the study said, crosses cultural and income levels, and boosts a child's chances for academic success regardless of the parents' literacy level.
The abolishment of fines doesn't mean the books are free for the taking. If a book isn't returned after six weeks, it will be categorized as "lost" and subject to replacement cost. But no fines will be assessed on picture books returned at any time after the due date.
The policy isn't yet permanent, either. Library staff will track the project through 2014 to see if it achieves the desired goal of increasing picture book circulation. Based on those results, they'll recommend whether to continue the practice.
LaRue, who'd been pondering the idea for some time, is retiring in January and said his pending departure prompted him to move forward with the idea.
"This is my swan song," he said. "It's something that's kind of bothered me, and this will be my last chance to do something about it."
DCL isn't the first system to try the fine-free approach. Denver Public Library no longer assesses fines on overdue children's materials, and some library proponents, in what has become a hot-button issue, believe the fees drive people away from the public system in favor of buying books.