A Card of Her Own

I am, generally, a very responsible person. I follow rules. I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket. I like deadlines and most of the time, meet them.

With one glaring exception: I cannot, for the life of me, return books to the library on time. While I don’t particularly mind supporting the library through these unintended donations, I’m pretty sure I could have purchased a small library of our own with the money I’ve paid in fines over the years.

So on Monday afternoon, at the library with the kids, it was not all that surprising when the librarian told me I had too many fines to check out any books. I needed to pay at least $3.65 to get my fines low enough to remove the restriction placed on my card. I would have paid it – there’s no arguing that the books were late – but I didn’t have any cash, or the checkbook, and the library isn’t set up to take credit cards.

“Well,” I said to Harper, “We’ll just read a couple of books here and come back another day to check some out.”

This did not go over well. I could sense a full-blown fit coming on and hesitated a moment, wondering if we should just leave now or go on to the children’s room and hope she could pull it together so we could read a book or two. In my moment of hesitation, the librarian jumped in:

“You know, she could get a card,” she said, pointing at Harper, “and you could check out books on her card.” Harper’s eyes lit up and she came back toward the desk.

“Do you have your ID?” the librarian asked me, and before I knew it, Harper was writing her name on the back of the card. “Now, of course, you have to be with her if she checks out books,” the librarian informed me.

This struck me as both completely ridiculous — You understand, I wanted to ask her, that I am the exact same person who already owes $8.65 and therefore I am not allowed to check out any books? I have not in any way proved myself to be worthy of the responsibility of a second card — and also completely charming and representative of everything I love about libraries.

(When I told this story to Rob later, he said I’d been the victim of predatory lending. I couldn’t pay the first loan, so they gave me a second one. Funny. But not true; predatory lending is an actual and terrible problem. Library fines are not.)

So I probably should have said no, but I did not want my daughter to be punished for the sins of her mother. Plus, you should have seen the quiet grin that crept across her face when the librarian handed her her card.

She grabbed some books, mostly at random, but we lucked out: One was about the civil rights movement; we learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., and what a coffin is (Where does the life go that was inside? she asked.) We read about a French sculptor and learned the word “oui.” We heard the story of a first grade class who welcomes a little girl who wears a headscarf. It’s a big world out there.

Good books, all of them. Would somebody please remind me to take them back on October 29?



  • Great story. I’m totally putting it on my calendar. Which means I will be more likely to help you return your books on time than get my own back to the library sans fine.

  • Now you’ll get more reminders than you need. Once you voice that you need a reminder, it sticks like glue in your head.

    What a complete joy for Harper to feel all grown up. It might make her be your future reminder. Follow up lesson is to pay the fines.

    (I’ve always had a time with getting books returned on time. I finish them way before the due date and then, there they sit until they are overdue and I get a card in the mail from the Library.)

  • I remember how excited my girls were when they got their library cards – probably around the same age as Harper. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still carrying those original library cards with their original signatures. We went to the library frequently and I always had fines to pay (in fact I still have that problem). But my girls absolutely love to read!!

  • LIBRARY FINES ARE A HORRID PROBLEM PLAGUING OUR NATION’S YOUTH AND YOU AND ME! I empathize with your story completely, Lee! We live in Chicago. The third largest metropolitan area in the nation and yet we somehow cannot pay with a credit card for our library fines. NOR can we pay online for them. And really, who carries a checkbook with them anymore??? Meanwhile, my mom’s podunk library not only accepts credit cards for fines, you can pay online AND you can pay through their SMART PHONE APP that also allows you to search their library catalog and put books on hold. Wha wha? Yeah, I’m with you. Rahm recently did an amnesty program for library fines here in Chicago and you can bet I stood in that line for a good 45 minutes to get my slate wiped clean. Now if only they could do an app so I could renew my books online like a normal person.

    PS — Rob is right, this is predatory lending!


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