Returning library books is not my strong suit. I’m so bad at it that until recently, I hadn’t checked out a book in ages. More than once I’ve elected to buy a new copy of an overdue book because it was more cost effective than paying the late fine.    

But when the Dallas Public Library went fine free in May, it changed my life. I released any previous humiliation and returned to an institution to which I have a strong connection. 

My first job, at the tender age of 15, was as a page at our local public library in Oswego, Illinois. My employment was kept a secret for several months because labor laws stipulated an employee had to be 16 years of age. I really think it was because I was paid $2.85 an hour, well below the minimum wage of $3.35 at the time.   

My hometown library evolved during my two-year tenure. Word processors replaced typewriters, and VHS tapes became part of the offerings. But one thing that remained constant was the late-fee structure. After a three-day grace period, it was 10 cents a day for each overdue item. There were no exceptions. Whether your kids were sick, your car broke down or you simply forgot, you paid the fine. It was punitive, springing from the belief that the penalty incites people to return items by their due date.  

However, that’s not the case. Overdue fines do little more than keep patrons away, says Jo Giudice, Dallas director of library services.  

Backed by national data, Giudice and the Dallas Public Library successfully lobbied for a change in the city’s ordinance to remove all late fees. It was a shift in library culture, but a change that Giudice felt confident making. Fines contributed less than 0.5 percent of revenue to the library system budget, and policing the policy had unintended consequences — some books and, more importantly, some customers (like me) weren’t coming back.   

Giudice took the helm of Dallas libraries in 2012. Prior to her arrival, the position had been vacant for three years, and the system was significantly underfunded. Under Giudice’s guidance, our libraries have evolved from book depositories to neighborhood gathering places that Giudice calls “the third living room.” There aren’t a lot of places where you can access high-speed internet, educational classes, movies and eBooks free of charge.  

If you haven’t been to the library recently, go to any of our East Dallas locations. I visited the Lakewood and Lochwood libraries and immediately felt the welcoming environment that Giudice and her branch managers have worked hard to create. 

Giudice wants to eliminate roadblocks to improve accessibility. For example, the Dallas Public Library does not accept federal funds because that requires a residency check. And remember when you couldn’t eat in the library? Giudice changed the policy to allow food because people, especially kids, get hungry. You may get a tap on the shoulder if you bring in fried chicken or sliced raw onions, but a granola bar and a beverage are perfectly acceptable after-school sustenance.   

“The reason that libraries are around today is because they’re flexible and adaptable,” Giudice says.  

Leslie Lake, manager of the Lakewood branch, agrees. 

“We want to be an integral part of the community, and we strive to be reflective of our community,” she says. 

When it comes to creating new programming, her personal motto is: “Let’s try it.”  

With flexibility and community as norms, our local libraries address trends and take suggestions from library patrons. Those ideas have led to the library investing in an abundance of books on urban chicken farming and offering retirees in our neighborhood a six-week chair yoga course. They also provide educational and craft classes. Watercolor, Composting 101 and Day of the Dead crafts are coming this fall, as well as book wreaths just in time for the holidays.  

There’s plenty of new programming, but one mainstay is, and will always be, storytime. I miss going with my kids to Bookmarks at NorthPark Center, and if my two teenagers let me, I’d still take them to listen to Dr. Seuss.   

The wealth of on-site and online offerings have led to an increase in circulation. Perhaps it’s because of the elimination of fines. It’s too early to analyze the data, Giudice says, but anecdotally, it seems that since the library became fine free, thousands of patrons have returned, and books are coming back before their due dates. 

Lake says it’s been a relief to not be the library police, preferring a “we’ll work with you” approach.   

I, too, prefer that approach. The six library books I checked out on my last visit, along with the two Kindle books I’ve borrowed via my laptop, are evidence of the joy it has been to rediscover the library, both in person and online.