Twin Cities libraries are deciding that access to books for kids is more important than collecting fines.
A fear that the very kids who need libraries the most are being kept out by fines is leading librarians to quietly lift overdue fees in hopes of keeping kids reading.
The lost dollars can be substantial. Dakota County could surrender up to $140,000 worth of outstanding penalties this fall in order to reinstate children’s borrowing privileges.
St. Paul, Ramsey and Anoka County libraries allow children and teens to reduce their fines by $1 for every 15 minutes they read under the watchful eye of a librarian.
Last year, 229 kids took Anoka up on that offer, freeing themselves of $1,375 in fines.
The softening on fines is happening against a backdrop of declines in book borrowing and a rise in low-income clientele.
“We decided that we didn’t want that experience of hearing a parent say to a child, ‘$2? That is the last time I bring you to the library,’ ” said Karen Kolb Peterson, youth and public services director for the St. Paul system. “For us, it’s more important that we provide the materials to people who want them than collect the pennies.”
But librarians admit there are tricky trade-offs. And some library patrons may be skeptical. A one-time forgiveness might be OK, because “everybody makes mistakes and loses track of time,” said Sarah Wicklander of Eagan, who takes her children to the library every week. But, in general, parents should be responsible for materials on their kids’ cards, she said.
In central cities and increasingly in suburban areas, libraries have become a community connection point where people of modest means use computers, often to get help finding jobs or to sign up for health insurance.
At the same time, librarians are embracing a role as champions of children’s literacy by getting books in kids’ hands.
Fine policies are not changing uniformly across the county, but individually, libraries are looking for ways to keep young people coming in the door, said Carolyn A. Anthony, president of the national Public Library Association, based in Chicago.
For instance, she said, the Public Library of Cincinnati allows children to get a card without the signature of a parent who would be responsible for the materials. Kids can take out three books at a time without risking fines.
“What they are saying basically is that they will take a chance” on children, Anthony said. Or to put it another way: Providing access to the books is more important than collecting the fines.
How Dakota County sees it
The amnesty on fines in suburban Dakota County comes in the context of an early learning campaign planned for the fall, Library Director Ken Behringer said.
Youths who have lost library materials will not be excused from fines. But those with only overdue fines will be invited to come in person to the library to arrange to clear their cards and go home with a new book to read.
Children and perhaps their parents may be avoiding the library because they have fines, said Darcy Schatz a member of the Dakota County Library Board, adding:
“If this in any way encourages children and families to come back to the library, then I’m all for it. I don’t anticipate the amnesty issue coming up again for many years, if ever.”