Targeted Problem Solving

Brooklyn Public Library

Problem

We have sought to understand and shed light on New York City’s library fines, a complex and systemic issue that disproportionately affects thousands of young people from low-income communities.

In 2017, our review found that there were over 236,000 children and youth who had library fines of $15 and therefore blocked library cards. This severely limited them from access and use of the public libraries in all boroughs. The effect is most profound in that this prevents young people from borrowing any library books, research materials, and other media essential for homework or research projects that must be completed outside of library hours (computer and materials use within the library are permitted although some sources indicate that to use a computer, a person must have a library card). The majority of children and youth in the five boroughs also do not have in-school libraries, and thus have no ability to take books home from any sources.

We disclosed our findings to the three New York City Library Systems and to media sources, which led to a foundation coming forward to fund a citywide fine forgiveness program that provides for the forgiveness of fines and releases library card blocks for all patrons ages 0 to 17.

However, we recognized that a one-time loan forgiveness program did not address the long-term problem of the accumulation of library fines or the disproportionate impact on poor kids who would be deprived of library use in the future as further fines accumulated. In short, no existing program dealt with helping children to avoid future fines.

Brooklyn Public Library is one of the borough’s most democratic institutions, providing free access to books and programs for children and their families. Heckscher’s support helps to ensure that young patrons will continue to come through our doors, maintaining the Library as a welcoming place for all.
Linda Johnson, President & CEO, Brooklyn Public Library
Linda Johnson Headshot

Solution

After our successful efforts to end youth library fines, we worked with Dr. Ben Castleman of Nudge4 Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia to fund a three-pronged nudge intervention with the Brooklyn Public Library System (BPL) aimed at both avoiding fine accumulations and supporting youth patrons and their families to actively engage with the library system and its youth-targeted activities.

The interventions involve:

  • Capitalizing on when patrons visit the library to nudge them to stay on top of fines and to make it easy for them to pay fines that have already accrued. This involves enhancements to self-checkout kiosks through which the majority of BPL patrons manage their books in circulation.
  • Using text messaging and revamped email communication systems to nudge patrons to return books on time, manage fines, and increase their library engagement.
  • Making improvements in fine repayment options; BPL will incorporate third-party payment systems like Venmo or ApplePay into the BPL website, mobile app, and checkout systems, and incorporate the ability for enhanced kiosks to accept cash and credit card payments.