Twelve-year-old Audrey Conner owed about $7 in fines to the Salt Lake City public library system, but the voracious reader was a little short.
It didn't matter. Her nearby library branch had an alternative: Kids who can't pay the fine can do the time. So Audrey sat in a room reading a book of her choice, earning $1 for every 10 minutes. She paid her debt in a little over an hour.
"I actually timed myself with my cell phone, and they wrote down my starting time," Conner said.
Libraries across the country are experimenting with similar programs that offer readers an amnesty on overdue fines or do away with them completely. In Salt Lake City, anyone 18 and under can "read down" a debt.
"It's a great idea, and it's picking up more and more," said Camila Alire, president of the American Library Association. "Especially now, during this economic recession, we don't want to deter people from using the library."
Lisa Curt, manager of the branch where Conner had the debt, said librarians "don't really like to have fines, particularly with children and teens who owe. It's like a necessary evil."
Some libraries eliminate fines altogether
In Arizona, the Scottsdale Public Library System has partnered with hospitals to issue library cards to newborn babies — and give those cards a year without fines. The idea is that new moms shouldn't have to worry about getting books back quickly. They have enough to do.
Some libraries think the fines system so outdated they are tossing it altogether.
On Valentine's Day last year, the Anythink Libraries just north of Denver eliminated their fine system.
"Our philosophy is that we want people to come to the library, even if their heads are hanging low," library spokeswoman Stacie Ledden said.
The library system gives patrons 25 days after the due date to return a book. It's then marked lost, and the reader is charged to replace it.
"Overdue fines are definitely one of those traditional library conventions that are worth taking a look at," Ledden said. "It's intimidating to people. They feel embarrassed about it. They feel guilty about it, and we don't want people to feel that way."
Want to 'bike down' a fine?
Programs to forgive fines are easier to implement at smaller public library systems with fewer branches and where overdue penalties are not a huge part of the budget.
The Salt Lake City library has six branches and expects to collect $350,000 in fines for the fiscal year ending in June. That figure is not expected to be affected much by the "read down" program.
The library is also considering a program that would allow patrons to "bike down" their fines by pedaling around town instead of using their car. And it is looking at a program that wipes accounts clean once a reader turns 18, like a criminal record.
Audrey was glad to have the "read down" option.
"I wasn't annoyed at all," she said. "Besides I like to read, so it was pretty good for me."