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Libraries encourage celebration of Returned Borrowed Books Week

It’s National Return Borrowed Books Week, and while libraries nationwide share epic tales of titles, missing for decades, finding their way home to empty shelves, some local librarians just hope folks will celebrate by bringing back overdue books.

“I don’t have any amazing, feel-good stories. I just have a lot of frustration,” said Claudia Bennett, director of California Area Public Library. “I have so many items out. I just sent out a bunch of billing letters; that means something has been gone a long, long time. I just don’t understand why people won’t return things. It’s not like we charge you anymore.”

When the pandemic began three years ago, libraries nationwide put late fines on hiatus. As the nation adjusted to a post-COVID world, libraries nationally agreed to do away with late fees.

“The idea was, fines are what keeps people away,” said Bennett. “All the WAGGIN libraries went fine-free. The bill goes away when (items) are returned.”

Libraries not only got rid of fines, they also extended the borrowing period for books. Before COVID-19, books were expected back to the library within two weeks. Now, local libraries lend books in two-week increments, and busy readers may extend their lease twice before a book is marked overdue (sans fine, of course).

“You really have stuff for six weeks,” said Bennett.

More than a month seems adequate time for reading the first in the “Game of Thrones” series, or a hefty classic like “Moby Dick,” but with the doing-away of fines comes a doing-away with returning books at all. At least, that’s how Bennett feels.

“I have so many items out, most DVDs,” she said. “I have been frustrated by people not returning things. We’re a small library. I don’t really know what bigger libraries are facing.”

Bigger libraries, like German-Masontown Public Library in Masontown, aren’t facing the same level of frustration. In fact, library director Samantha Lambert, who took the helm about seven months ago, said books are being returned consistently on time.

“I can’t speak to how they used to come back,” said Lambert, “but compared to libraries I’ve worked at in the past, they come back at the same rate.”

Though the library doesn’t currently have outlandishly overdue titles, Lambert said it’s good to be aware of your book’s due date, and to return it on time.

“Bringing books back, it allows us to do what we do. A lot of the time, new bestsellers have waiting lists. We really appreciate it when patrons are responsible with their items. We’re just grateful to responsible patrons,” she said.

Nicole Mesich Mitchell, executive director of Flenniken Library in Waynesburg, said in an email her library loves returned books, too.

“There are no overdue fines anymore across the WAGGIN system,” she wrote. “So long overdue books can come back with no hefty fee.”

Fees are a thing of the past, and that’s all right with Diane Ambrose, director of Citizens Library in Washington, who said the move to fine-free keeps libraries relevant and ensures all locals have access to resources.

Aside from the occasional missing book, she’s not noticed any trend in long-past-overdue books since scrapping fines.

“Every library is different. People were very receptive to us not charging fines. They really seemed to care about returning materials. In our case, I don’t think it has really been a major problem,” Ambrose said.

Digital resources, which do not accrue fines and are always returned on time, since the borrowed item simply disappears on its due date, have become more popular in recent years.

“They have just continued to become more popular as we move past COVID and into a more digital (world),” said Ambrose. “We still see a lot of of people coming into the library – they want that book, they want a book in their hand.”

Books in hand are charming, tactile, and, in the olden days, fine-able. Going fine free, Ambrose said, encourages folks to value and patronize their community library. She said people seem to respect the transactional nature of checking out a library book.

“We don’t have to send a lot of bills. People are used to returning them,” she said. “For the most part, they do come back.”

Ambrose, like other directors, stressed that incurred fines are forgiven the moment a material is returned.

“We certainly are way past the days of trying to take people to the magistrate. People have all sorts of things going on in their lives. The last thing we want to do is make their lives more difficult. We want people to come to the library, we want people to use the library, we are here to help people get items and take them home and bring them back,” Ambrose said.

Tractor-trailer fire on I-70 near West Alexander snarls traffic
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A tractor-trailer fire on Interstate 70 near the West Alexander interchange snarled westbound traffic in Washington County for several hours Tuesday.

The rig, which was hauling food and other supplies, caught fire shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday, prompting the westbound lanes between the Claysville and West Alexander exits to be closed while crews cleaned up the debris and removed the charred trailer from the highway.

The unidentified driver was not injured and crews from fire departments in West Alexander and Claysville were called to extinguish the blaze, which apparently was caused by the truck’s brakes.

The fire left a gaping hole in the middle of the trailer, and workers could be seen using shovels and a compact track loader to remove the freight so the rest of the vehicle could be towed away.

The lengthy cleanup effort forced the closure of the I-70 westbound lanes for several hours as Pennsylvania State Police diverted traffic from the interstate onto Route 40 at the Claysville interchange. That led to a nearly six-mile traffic jam from Claysville past the Taylorstown exit as vehicles slowed to a crawl in order to exit the interstate.

While passenger cars and trucks were able to re-enter I-70 at the West Alexander exit, tractor-trailers and other commercial vehicles had to continue on Route 40 into West Virginia. That led to another massive backup in Ohio County as a long line of rigs could be seen snaking along Route 40 for several miles while trying to get to the Elm Grove/Triadelphia interchange to continue west on the interstate.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said the interstate reopened to traffic about 1:30 p.m. after being closed for more than seven hours. But there remained residual delays for some time on both I-70 in Pennsylvania and Route 40 in West Virginia as traffic made its way through the detours.

A state police spokesman at the Washington County barracks could not be reached for comment Tuesday for more information about the tractor-trailer fire.

Shapiro's 1st Pennsylvania budget stresses schools, prudence
Gov. Josh Shapiro is proposing a hefty an increase in aid to Pennsylvania’s schools in his first budget he's delivering to the Legislature
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HARRISBURG – Gov. Josh Shapiro is proposing a hefty an increase in aid to Pennsylvania’s schools in his first budget delivered Tuesday to the Legislature, but the Democrat’s administration also emphasized prudence, saying a massive cash surplus will dwindle over time.

Shapiro’s budget proposal comes as Pennsylvania keeps taking in robust tax collections, leaving it with billions in reserve, even as the administration faces demands for more money for schools, highways and social services.

Spending would rise by 6% while Shapiro is proposing no increases in income or sales taxes, the state’s two main revenue sources.

Shapiro did not, however, repeat his call during the campaign to more than halve the corporate net income tax rate over two years, preferring instead to discuss it with lawmakers while his administration keeps an eye out for volatility in collections.

Shapiro also did not propose any major one-time spending items using the reserve cash, although roughly $1 billion in money for public schools will come with grants for mental health needs, security improvements and removing environmental hazards.

In his 83-minute address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Shapiro promised to repay voters’ trust by showing that “government can be a positive, productive force for good.”

Using conservative revenue forecasts, Shapiro said his administration is prepared to weather difficult fiscal times.

But, Shapiro said, he is also making “investments to build an economy that works for everyone, to create safe and healthy communities, to ensure that every child receives a quality education and to protect real freedom.”

All told, Shapiro’s budget plan for the 2023-24 fiscal year that starts July 1 boosts spending through the state’s main bank account to $44.4 billion, a 4% increase over this year’s budget. The increase would be 6%, but the Shapiro administration moved the $930 million state police budget out of the state’s operating account.

The budget requires approval from the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

The plan will require about $2 billion from reserves, as tax collections are projected to dip.

Republicans quickly flagged that as a concern, calling it short-sighted and dangerous, and criticized Shapiro’s budget for lacking more aid for private schools.

Meanwhile, Democrats acknowledged that Shapiro’s proposal may not go as far as public school advocates wanted, but they touted the millions devoted to providing free school breakfasts, maintaining anti-violence programs, helping pay for public defenders, and increasing property tax and rent subsidies for the elderly and disabled.

Most of the new money will go to education, health care and social services.

His administration said it will seek no tax increases, other than a slight increase in an fee on monthly phone bills to fund county emergency response systems – from $1.65 to $2.03.

On the flip side, Shapiro proposed eliminating taxes of 11% on mobile phone service – a promise he made during last year’s campaign. Shapiro raised another a campaign pledge and asked lawmakers to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour next year from the federal minimum of $7.25.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of Shapiro’s budget is what he said would be a “down payment” on the billions of dollars that public school allies say are necessary to comply with a court decision that found Pennsylvania’s school funding system violates the constitutional rights of students in the poorest districts.

He is proposing an increase of $567 million – or about 7% more – for day-to-day school operations, plus about $100 million more apiece for special education, mental health counselors, anti-violence grants, and removing environmental hazards in school buildings like mold, lead and asbestos.

That cash, however, may disappoint public school advocates and the school districts that won last month’s landmark court decision. They had hoped for at least $2 billion to start.

Shapiro also touted money to develop cutting-edge technology, streamline state permits and train workers as Pennsylvania tries to land the kind of a big semiconductor, battery or microchip plants that are going to other states.

“I’m sick and tired of losing out to other states,” Shapiro said.

In the meantime, good fiscal times could be ending.

A legislative agency, the Independent Fiscal Office, projects that Pennsylvania will soon return to its long-term pattern of deficits now that federal pandemic aid has been spent and inflation-juiced tax collections subside.

There are other cost pressures.

Shapiro’s budget seeks to send an additional $100 million to improve highways and bridges, while the administration sees how much federal funding it can get to fill a gap that PennDOT last year said was roughly $8 billion, or more than 50%.

Providers of services for the intellectually disabled and autistic say the system is collapsing as they close programs because of underfunding and staffing shortages. They are seeking an additional $430 million, or 15% more, in state aid, while Shapiro’s budget proposes about $120 million.

Counties say the safety-net mental health services they manage are in crisis, without enough beds or counselors for people who need help after demand spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shapiro’s budget proposes about $20 million more, which may not be enough for counties that say they are working with the same amount of state aid as they received in 2012.