Hennepin County officials are considering the elimination of overdue library fees and amnesty for patrons who already owe money.
Under existing library policy, patrons who owe more than $10 in late fees can't check out library materials, but they do have access to all other library services. Library staff will work with people on a partial payment to possibly reinstate library privileges until the rest of the debt is paid.
More than 72,000 people, or 13% of those with an active library card, are over the $10 limit. The county received about $600,000 in overdue fees last year, a tiny portion of the library system's $86 million budget for 2019.
If the county agrees to wipe out fines, it would join St. Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Dallas and dozens of other jurisdictions that have dropped library fees. Earlier this year, the American Library Association passed a resolution urging libraries to take similar action.
"In Hennepin County, we are not hesitant to look into the elimination of fines and haven't ruled it out," said Interim Library Director Janet Mills. "We are always looking at ways to remove barriers to access."
The Hennepin County Library system has 41 branches and includes all locations in Minneapolis and 845,350 registered cardholders. Last year, people checked out or renewed more than 18 million books and other library materials.
Mills stressed that the system's fine and fee policy states that "the overarching value is access to and stewardship of library resources." The library is a publicly funded institution, and to be a good fiscal steward, the system values all sources of revenue to balance the budget, she said.
The county is gathering and analyzing data and actively engaging with colleagues in library systems across the country to learn from their experiences with eliminating fines, said Mills. This is to ensure there are no unintended consequences if the County Board were to approve the elimination of fines, she said. For instance, fines would still be enforced if items are never returned.
A group called the "Committee for the Abolition of Library Fines" recently sent the County Board a petition with dozens of signatures. Opponents of library fines argue that they restrict access to public services and resources for low-income populations, people of color and those without a college degree. Fines and fees are also an inefficient use of staff time and don't ensure borrowed materials end up back on library shelves.
People can pay all or part of their late fees in a variety of ways, including using self-checkout machines, talking to staff or paying online with a credit card. The county doesn't dedicate staff or use a collection agency to collect fees.
"When I worked at a service desk, there was a young person who had to complete a school project," Mills said. "She had late charges and had no money at the time, but I overrode the fees and let her check out materials."
With the fine system in place, she said the county has targeted other policies that could keep patrons from visiting a library. It recently started an auto-renewal system, which will check out books three more times after the initial three-week borrowing period. There is a 5-cent daily charge for overdue children's books and no cost to replace a lost card.
Those over the $10 limit still are able to use any materials in the library, as well as downloading and online services. Those patrons can also attend events, reserve meeting spaces and get help from staff.
When the St. Paul Library system ended overdue fines and forgave more than $2.5 million in accumulated fees on Jan. 1, Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene immediately reached out to Mills to get her thoughts on the issue. She was satisfied with Mills' explanation about what the county has been doing to maintain accessibility and its efforts to research overdue fine policies, but she said the board isn't ready to decide whether to drop fees. Greene hasn't spoken to other commissioners about the subject.
Although fee revenue has declined in recent years because more people are using electronic materials, the St. Paul Library system still received $215,000 in this year's budget to replace fee revenue. It was estimated that eliminating staff time spent on collecting and negotiating late fees would save $250,000 a year.
The fee policy change in St. Paul came after gathering community feedback for a month and a robust analysis of national fine and fee standards, said Catherine Penkert, director of St. Paul libraries. Mainly, the staff learned from the community that fines or the fear of having to pay a fine was a barrier to using the library, she said. Eliminating fines also had the strong support of Mayor Melvin Carter.
"It's not just about income, but negative emotional experience of having to pay a fine," she said. "It can be a humiliating conversation about owing money. We [want to] flip the conversation with staff to talk about what the library has to offer."
In the first six months, circulation has increased, and more than 43,000 items have been checked out by people who previously had their cards blocked. The Rondo Library on Dale Street had more than 7,700 cards unblocked, the most of the city's 13 locations.
Besides St. Paul, Washington County has been fine-free for years, and Dakota County had a fine-forgiveness week in April. While more systems are getting rid of fines, Mills said it's still a fairly new idea. She doesn't know of a library system that automatically renews material like Hennepin County and has abolished fines.
"But board commissioners have reached out to me knowing that this is happening in other library systems and that there is a group advocating for it in the county," she said.