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Woman gains national attention for returning library book after 63 years

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    MADISON, Wisconsin ( State Journal) — When Betty Diamond returned a book to the Queens Public Library recently after 63 years, she calculated what she might have owed.

Diamond said the fine was 2 cents a day in 1957, when she was a 10-year-old in Whitestone, Queens. At that rate she would have owed $459.

But, at a certain point, she said, the fines stop and the library assumes the book is lost and charges a replacement fee.

“So, you know, there’s not really 63 years worth of fines,” said Diamond, 74, who lives on Madison’s Near West Side, and is a playwright and director for the Madison Theatre Guild at the Bartell Theatre.

Diamond made a $500 donation to the Queens Public Library Foundation in lieu of a replacement fee on the book, “Ol’ Paul, the Mighty Logger” by Glen Rounds. Diamond said as a girl she was embarrassed to return the overdue book.

When she finally sent back the book last month and made her contribution, the library foundation reached out to her and asked if she’d be willing to do interviews. She agreed because she thought it could be a good fundraising tool for the library.

After the book’s return, a library publicist interviewed her and pitched it to various news outlets, including The New York Times, which ran a story Wednesday.

Diamond said she just expected the story to run in “the local Queens library newsletter or something,” but since the story came out, she’s heard from the CBS affiliate in New York City and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. for its show “As It Happens.”

“Ol’ Paul, the Mighty Logger” was a favorite book of hers as a child, and Diamond said she tried to read the collection of tall Paul Bunyan tales last month after she decided to return it, but the stories didn’t hold up.

“The Paul Bunyan stories are all about exaggeration, like Paul Bunyan’s beard is so long, he combs it with a pine tree, that kind of thing, and he’s so big …” said Diamond, who has a doctorate in English from UW-Madison and is retired from teaching literature at UW-Whitewater.

“I started reading the stories, and I don’t find exaggeration and those things funny anymore,” she said. “I couldn’t finish reading the book. I was like, ‘Oh, no, not funny anymore.’”

Since the pandemic started, all New York City library systems have waived late fees, and Nick Buron, chief librarian of the Queens Public Library, told The Times that there have been discussions about eliminating late fees altogether.

This summer, the Madison Public Library system joined a growing list of libraries eliminating late fees, in large part to ensure that lower-income people can continue to check out materials.

Madison had been considering the move to a fully fine-free model since 2019, and in August ended most fines and zeroed out overdue accounts, ending the use of a collection agency. The library had been charging 25 cents a day for overdue adult items.

The system continues to charge for lost or damaged materials, although it’s not using a collection agency to recover that money.

Tana Elias, Madison Public Library’s digital services and marketing manager, said Madison libraries routinely purge very old “lost” items.

Margaret Navarre Saaf, Madison Public Library’s borrower services manager, said lost and/or damaged charges don’t stay on the library’s books forever. The library routinely purges charges that are under $100 and more than 10 years old.

Madison library staffers manually cleared fines from more than 33,000 patron records, from fines over $300 to 5-cent fines, Elias said. It took months, but the library finished that process last week.

Elias said that after clearing the fines, the library has 3,478 patrons who are no longer blocked from checking out materials, although some will need to update their address or contact information.

People are blocked from checking out once they incur $20.01 in fines, she said. Most of the 33,000 had fines that were under the $20 limit, so they were still able to check materials out, even with fines on their cards.

Others had fines waived, but still had lost/damaged charges on their records that were over $20, so they will continue to be blocked from checking out until the damaged/lost charges are paid.

Elias said the library forgave $282,084 in fines. “Library fines, or the fear of incurring library fines, was a deterrent to library use for some people and we are happy to remove one more barrier from using the public library,” she said.

For the most part, Elias said, library users still turn in their books on time. The library offers email reminders when library items are due in two days. Customers have the option to turn those on or off, she said, but many customers use them.

The percentage of those who are late with returns varies day by day and is not tracked daily. Elias said that a snapshot from 2019 that the library used to present to the library board showed that of 151,433 registered library card holders, 47,780 (32%) had fines and 9,829 (6.5%) were blocked.

She said blocks were higher in libraries serving low-income neighborhoods. “By the time we actually started clearing fines, those numbers had dropped, in part due to waiving fines due to COVID for many months.”

The library also sends overdue notices by email, phone or mail, so library users can renew materials, if possible, or return them.

“We noticed that overall fine revenue decreased when we offered the pre-overdue notice service a few years back,” Elias said.

Diamond said that as a child, libraries were a place of comfort. “It was like being a kid in the candy store. It was just like, ‘Ooh, look at all these books, and you can take them home. Because I just loved books. I loved going into the world of books. I was a great reader.”

She said to her the public library was “a statement of faith and humanity.”

“It’s like, ‘here, take this book and we trust that you will return it, you know?’” she said. “It’s just such generosity that I really feel it needs to be acknowledged and honored.”

Diamond said when she was growing up her parents, immigrants from what was then Czechoslovakia, spoke to each other in Hungarian, their native language, while using English or Yiddish with Diamond and her older brother.

“It was a treat to get to explore different worlds” through books, she said.

The legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan, meanwhile, plays a part in local history. In 1916, K. Bernice Stewart, a UW student, published a scholarly anthology of original anecdotes through a series of interviews she did with Midwest loggers.

In 2007, Michael Edmonds of the Wisconsin Historical Society investigated the Paul Bunyan tradition and published his findings in “Out of the Northwoods: The Many Lives of Paul Bunyan.”

He concluded that Paul Bunyan had origins in the oral traditions of woodsmen working in Wisconsin camps during the turn of the 20th century, but the stories were heavily embellished and popularized by commercial interests.

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