Austin residents return to library thanks to amnesty event

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Lacovia Harper’s children never knew the joys of browsing the shelves at their local library or checking out a favorite book over and over again. But that’s all changed thanks to an amnesty program that waived her overdue book fees.

From Aug. 20 to Sept. 7, Chicagoans could return overdue books and other materials without paying fines. Although payment is still due for items not brought back, library cards are being wiped clean for returned materials so residents get a fresh start.

“It hurt that I couldn’t give my kids the chance to read and take a book home and just explore everything the library had to offer — my fines were just too high; I couldn’t afford it,” said Harper, 24, a life-long Austin resident who said she would accompany her sisters to the North Austin Branch, 5724 W. North Ave., every day after school when she was growing up.

Harper owed more than $200 in overdue book fees, and because of that “intimidating” amount, she said she hadn’t gone to the library since before her children were born.

Last week, her son Anthony, 5, and daughter Aniyah, 3, were able to make their first trip to the library.

Harper’s fees were waived as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “Once in a Blue Moon Amnesty.” The program that hasn’t occurred in 20 years was named after the rare blue moon that lit up the night sky Aug. 31 and was timed to coincide with the start of the 2012 school year.

“We know that an overdue fine, as small as $1, can be a barrier to library use and deprive patrons of access to important resources,” said Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing and communications for the Chicago Public Library.

“By inviting people to bring back the materials, with no penalty, we are able to get the items back in circulation for others to use and are able to welcome back the patrons to once again use the library services.”

Chicago Public Library’s overdue fees are 20 cents per day after a three-week rental period for books, CDs, cassettes, LPs and digital players. For videos, DVDs and museum passports, that fine increases to $2 a day after a one-week rental period.

At least one Austin librarian thinks this program is invaluable for a community hit hard by the economic recession.

“When we ask people to pay fines, no matter what the fine is, at that point people have to make choices, and unfortunately that choice is often to not return to the library,” said Shirley Wallace, 53, branch manager at Austin’s West Avenue Branch, 4856 W. Chicago Ave., which opened in 2006. Wallace said as of Aug. 29 , more than 250 people had had their fines forgiven.

One guest said she hadn’t visited the library since 1999. Another returned a book from 1975.

“Some people are terrified to find out how much they actually owe,” Wallace said. “But once they find out they’re getting a second chance, they’re so happy — and promising they won’t get into this fix again.”


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