Growing up in Delaware County in the 1970s, my parents did not splurge on a home library.  Middle class families could not afford such luxuries but even if we could, why would we? The Marple Public Library in Broomall was only two miles away.  It housed every book imaginable along with newspapers, magazines and comfortable chairs. All I needed was a library card and this wonderful place lent me a maximum of seven books at a time.

My mother took my brothers and me to the library almost every weekend.  I plowed through the Little House books, read every Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twin book in order, learned about life from Judy Blume and revelled in the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. I also began a lifelong fascination with Abraham Lincoln, methodically checking out every book available about his youth, his presidency and what America was like in the 19th century.

As a child, I never paid an overdue library fine or lost or damaged a library book.  In our household, that simply was not an option. We cared for library books as if they were priceless treasures and returned them on or before the due date. My brothers and I never dared to suggest that we would return a book late and “just pay the fine.”  Such a carefree attitude towards due dates and personal responsibility had no place in my parents’ determination to raise responsible children.

However, there was more to it than that. Those books had to go back on the library shelves so that others could enjoy them.  I remember my mother putting herself on waiting lists for new releases and best sellers. In those days, the library would only purchase a few copies of new books and depended on patrons reading and timely returning so that the next person in line could enjoy them.  

As a ten year old, I did not necessarily understand that it was a taxpayer funded government resource, but I understood that libraries were there to be treasured and shared by everyone.

Those library trips instilled a lifelong love of reading and learning, but also important citizenship lessons.  As a ten year old, I did not necessarily understand that it was a taxpayer funded government resource, but I understood that libraries were there to be treasured and shared by everyone.  We never thought to question the system of fines. Of course anyone who could not return borrowed books on time should be held to account, however modestly, given so many others were waiting patiently for them to be re-shelved. 

Today, libraries provide much more than books.  Here in Philadelphia, we can use the Free Library of Philadelphia for a variety of resources including computers, classes, career assistance and even small business assistance. These shared resources help level the playing field, providing those Philadelphians with limited financial resources access to vital services.  The privilege of the library comes with a responsibility to follow the rules.

These shared resources help level the playing field, providing those Philadelphians with limited financial resources access to vital services.  The privilege of the library comes with a responsibility to follow the rules.

With the unabashed support of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, the Free Library ended the policy of charging fines for overdue books on Valentine’s Day.  Siobhan A. Reardon, president and director of the library system indicated that almost 88,000 Philadelphia library card holders owed fines. Now, materials can be borrowed and returned on the library patron’s schedule, without fear of consequence or repercussions.

This new public policy of unchecked leniency generated an almost visceral reaction in many Philadelphians.  If we do not charge fines, what incentive do people have to timely return the materials they borrow? Mayor Kenney called fines “punitive” and claims they create “a barrier to use” that “frequently prevents patrons from returning materials that belong to the Library”  so that they can “be used and enjoyed by more Philadelphians.” Some argue that these policies might result in the return of long outstanding materials in the short term, but what will be the long term effect of such tolerance of disrespect for due dates?

Who are these 88,000 library patrons who had their fines eliminated?  Mayor Kenney makes a broad assumption in taking the patriarchal and, frankly, pedantic position that only the poor were not returning library materials and paying fines.  Nevertheless, all is forgiven because the mayor’s logic appears to be that if people do not follow the rules, simply eliminate the rules.

The Kenney Administration has not been shy in simply ignoring what it deems ideologically inconvenient.  If you entered the country illegally and commit a crime in Philadelphia, our Sanctuary City status means that law enforcement will not report you to federal authorities.  If you possess, use and even overdose on illegal drugs, the Kenney Administration wants to provide a place for you to do so.  

WILLIAM M. MCSWAIN: LINCOLN DAY 2020: STANDING UP FOR THE RULE OF LAW

Gun violence and homicide rates reached historic highs in Philadelphia in 2019, while retail theft increased twenty percent over 2018. Kenney and his politically aligned District Attorney Krasner respond by crowing about the success of their criminal justice reform agenda including the decision to change the rules they deemed inconvenient: the elimination of cash bail and the prosecution of certain crimes. The message is clear: ideological convenience and even the coddling of lawbreakers trump personal responsibility and good citizenship.

The message is clear: ideological convenience and even the coddling of lawbreakers trump personal responsibility and good citizenship.

What will be the Kenney Administration’s next frontier in the lowering of expectations for Philadelphians?  I hope that, despite the arguably bigoted message that City Hall continues to send, the people of Philadelphia recognize that these privileges require good citizenship and a prioritization of personal responsibility.

Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and a co-founder of Broad + Liberty. She can be reached at lkerns@broadandliberty.com. Follow @lindakernslaw.

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2 thoughts on “Linda A. Kerns: Have we eliminated personal responsibility along with library fines in Philadelphia?”

  1. Sad. Philadelphia used to be a great city. Now it’s just in a race to the bottom of the barrel. Look out Baltimore & Chicago, here it comes!

  2. The perception of lawlessness that’s admittedly gaining starts from the top. Citizenry and lawfulness are virtues aspired to when leaders/legislators/law enforcement protect the rule of law AND the law itself elevates citizenry (eg tax policy, appropriations for public resources, disparate incarceration rates). Politicized and applied differentially– a moveable rule– the law loses credibility and lawfulness is devalued. As a fellow Lincoln admirer, let’s not imagine the conduct of our public servants doesn’t influence the wider millieu, regard for law and commitment to citizenry. We humble library patrons take cues and learn conduct (and grow disgusted and disdainful) if the law shows itself to be corruptible. Certainly, eliminating the laws is a radical strategy, but don’t attribute it to an ideology: it’s because the law arbitrarily applied, tragically, has become a tool of inequity. It’s felt and assimilated early, even children who disregard return dates.

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