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Library Fees? No Problem. Just Show Us Your Cat Photos.

A program this month encourages library patrons in Worcester, Massachusetts, who have lost or damaged books or other items to reactivate their accounts. All they need is a picture of a cat.

The Worcester Public Library found a purr-fect way to pardon users who lost or damaged borrowed items.Credit...Rachel Rose/Alamy

Finally, there is something cats can do for humans.

The Worcester Public Library in Worcester, Mass., announced that through the end of March, people who have lost or damaged a book or other borrowed items can bring a photograph, drawing, or magazine clipping of a cat, and get their library cards reactivated.

The library calls the program March Meowness, a way for the system of seven branches to forgive (or is that fur-give?) members of the community who misplaced a book or damaged a borrowed item, and then never went back to avoid paying for it.

In just a few days, the program has already generated hundreds of returns, multiple postings of random cat photographs on the library’s Facebook page, and photographs and drawings pinned on a growing “cat wall” in the main building.

The local NPR affiliate, WBUR, described it as a “never be-fur tried initiative,” and urged patrons to hurry and “act meow.” So far the response, WBUR said, has Jason Homer, the executive director of the library, “feline good.”

Mr. Homer said in an interview on Monday that about 400 people have had their library accounts unblocked and borrowing privileges restored after bringing in their pictures or drawings of cats. Any cat will do, or even, for that matter, any creature will do.

“We take a lot of honorary cats,” Mr. Homer said. “Any ungovernable animal.”

If you don’t have a cat? No problem. One cat-less 7-year-old boy, who never returned a “Captain Underpants” book, had his library card reactivated after the staff gave him paper and crayons to sketch one. Like many public libraries in the United States, the libraries in Worcester, a city of about 200,000 people (and their cats) southwest of Boston, are trying to encourage people to re-emerge from the sparse, solitary days of the pandemic. Used as vaccine sites through the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s libraries have returned to become vibrant community spaces, offering crafts, wellness courses, and seminars about avoiding fraud.

Mr. Homer said that at the outset of the pandemic many people lost books while moving, or students left them in classrooms, never anticipating it would be long before they came back.

The library serves an urban population that Mr. Homer described, generally, as families holding down multiple jobs.

Fee collection would be counterproductive, he said.

“We know life gets in the way,” he said.

The library had previously tried to boost attendance and fee-forgiveness programs with canned food drives. But the cats found their way into the spotlight, as they do. The Meowness program took shape after several months of brainstorming by a library task force that met to come up with a creative way to get people back through the doors.

“It spiraled in a good way from there,” Mr. Homer said. “We were just trying to figure out the lowest barrier possible.”

About 101,601 cards have been issued at the library’s seven branches. Of those, 4,297 had been blocked, including 300 belonging to students, most of them in elementary schools.

“You know what? It’s OK, we forgive you,” Mr. Homer explained. “Just show us a picture of a cat.”

While the library had previously stopped charging fines for late returns, many people who faced fees for lost items simply stayed away. One woman who had lost library DVDs in 2016 recovered access to her account with a photograph of a cat, Mochi. Patrons have submitted photographs of their cats stretched out in a cat tree, ignoring a dog, and peering into the camera from a chair or carpet.

Mr. Homer said that using cats as the vehicle to forgive patrons for losing or damaging books or other borrowed items could help to soften the stereotype of the stern librarian.

“We don’t really have the high buns and ‘shush’ people anymore,” he said. “We are still book lovers, cardigan lovers and cat lovers.”

Article credits: The New York Times


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