When Maureen Hartman, a deputy director of the St. Paul Public Library, tells a new acquaintance where she works, they often respond with shame.

"The first thing they say to me is, 'Omigod, I have some books overdue, I'm so sorry,' " she said. "I do not want that to be the first thing that somebody thinks about when they think about the library."

It isn't now.

In the past few years, a "fine-free" movement has swept the country, and now includes several local systems, including St. Paul, Hennepin County, Rochester and Duluth.

Late fees have long been as much a part of public libraries as books, but funding a collective resource through people's mistakes contradicted the mission of libraries to be a welcoming place where people gather, access information and gain opportunity.

Now, as librarians increasingly play a wide range of duties — book-finder, story-reader, resume-writing coach, even Narcan administrator — they have a new role, as a quasi-fairy godmother making late fees vanish.

Everybody returns books late sometimes, "even people who work at libraries," Hartman acknowledges. But the consequences were uneven.

Before going fine-free, in January 2019, about 42,000 St. Paul cardholders — 17% of patrons in the system — had their borrowing privileges blocked due to racking up fines of $10 or more. Though fine revenue represented a tiny fraction of the library's budget, for some patrons, paying fines meant skimping on groceries.

After zeroing card balances and reinstating borrowing privileges, St. Paul library staff held their collective breath: Without threat of punishment, would patrons hoard all the books?

It turns out that in St. Paul, blocked cardholders came back in droves. In 2019, that group checked out some 85,000 items. Now only 1% of cards are blocked, due to a patron not returning or paying the replacement cost of an item by 41 days after its due date.

Patrons still brought items back in a timely manner.

"People know this is a community asset, and they will use it as needed and they will share it with everyone else," Hartman said.

From auto-renewal to fine-free

In 2018, Hennepin County Library implemented an automatic-renewal feature. Overdue fines plummeted and patrons loved the convenience.

"And the staff breathed a big sigh of relief that all of our stuff came back," said systems librarian Phil Feilmeyer.

Eliminating late fees, in March 2021, was a natural next step. Previously, about 177,000 of Hennepin County's nearly 600,000 cardholders owed more than $10 and were restricted from borrowing. In some census tracts, a third of all cardholders were blocked; now the highest rate is 7%.

And patrons' access to materials hardly changed. The average time patrons kept books increased modestly, from 24 to 27 days. For browsers, at least 70% of collection is on the shelf at any time, the same as before.

Now, instead of haggling over a $2 fine, staffers can focus on helping patrons, said Hartman, a 25-year library veteran who believes fine-free will soon be universal.

"I don't think anything has excited me more in public libraries than this movement" she said. "It's that transformational."