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.”

Fine forgiveness does present a dilemma, said Susan Nimitz, director in Ramsey County.

Fines are an incentive to bring materials back on time so they can go out to someone else, she said.

“We want the incentive for children to bring their materials back. Often when you have no consequences whatsoever you are not necessarily creating the right behavior.”

But offering “read-downs” every first Saturday of a month encourages children to read, Nimitz said.

“We don’t want to create policies that prevent them from reading. What you really don’t want to do is create a barrier for low-income people to use the library.”

Differing tactics

Anoka County is in its second year of offering a monthlong read-down in June as a way for anyone 17 or younger to work off fines, said youth services manager Maggie Snow.

Hennepin County has a 5-cent-a-day fine on overdue children’s and teen materials up to a maximum of $1 on each book or DVD. It is planning a fine waiver for teens during a special event in October.

Otherwise the library prefers to talk case by case with youths or families about overdue fines, said Janet Mills, library services director.

By contrast, the Washington County Library has never had daily overdue fines, director Patricia Conley said.

“Opponents of fines see them as discouraging library use … especially discouraging use by the young and the poor.”

St. Paul does not charge overdue fines for children’s materials, but children and teens take out adult materials as well and rack up fines that way, Kolb Peterson said.

While finding ways to help children regain the use of their library cards, librarians also take pains to explain how the library works: “ ‘You borrow a book, and you return it so it’s here for the next person.’ We haven’t just said, ‘Oh, take anything you want,’ ” Kolb Peterson said.

But the programs to reduce fines are well worth it, she said. Kids respond much better to librarians “when we are seen as people who are helping them regain the use of a privilege rather than someone who is keeping them from something they need.’’

Tara Bland of Eagan, visiting the Wescott Library in Eagan on Wednesday with her grandchildren, said:

“It’s a good thing to encourage children to read,” and she would approve forgiving the fine if parents are not able to pay, as long as the materials are returned. “Sometimes children are powerless and should not be blamed for things not their fault,” Bland said. “We have all kinds of programs for people who don’t have means, and there ought to be something in the library that speaks to that.”

Alex Do, a 15-year-old from Eagan volunteering this week at the Wescott Library, said he has a fine on his card of $3.50 that he intends to pay.

“I have always turned my books in,” he said. “Kids reading books is really good for them,’’ but there should be a limit on the fines that are forgiven, otherwise kids could take advantage of it.

Nationally librarians seek to achieve the same delicate balance, Anthony said.

“One of the reasons we have fines in the first place is to show we are responsible for the public goods,” she said. “We are not looking at fines by and large as a major source of revenue. Our primary purpose is to be good custodians and help people use the library well and not just gouge them for money.”

But regular fine amnesties can be a slippery slope, she said. If people know one is coming up, they may hold their materials until they can bring them back without fines.

“If it’s infrequent, then it can be effective.”