During a recent trip to the Rum River Library in Anoka, Jacinta Kolles was glad for some quiet time to read. The 11-year-old breezed through a Hardy Boys book and, at the same time, was able to erase some debt.

Kolles was taking advantage of “Read Down Your Fines,” an Anoka County Library program that lets kids knock $1 off their fines for every 15 minutes of reading they do. The program, in its third year, runs through the end of July, although it will be renewed for a month this fall.

At this point, Kolles has 40 cents remaining from the $4 she owed. “If you have a really big fine, it’s nice to ‘read it down.’ You don’t have to take that money out of your own account,” she said, adding that her sister, Amara, is whittling down a $10 fine.

“Read Down Your Fines” is just one way that the county library system is promoting literacy and learning in the offseason, says Jenn Straumann, its community engagement manager. Similar initiatives have taken root in libraries all over the place, though each has its own approach, she said.

In the Anoka County system, “Read Down Your Fines” has been successful enough that the board decided to extend it from one month to three this year, Straumann said. It will be reprised in October to correlate with national Teen Read Week.

How does it work? Cardholders ages 17 and younger simply visit their neighborhood library, pick out a title and sign in with a librarian, saying they want to read down their fines, Straumann said. Then, for every 15 minutes of reading they do at the library, they reduce what they owe by $1. Listening to audiobooks or being read to also counts.

Most fines hover around $5, but once cardholders hit $10 or more, they can’t check out materials. (The Anoka County system has 41,090 cardholders who are 17 and younger, and 3,990 have more than $10 in fines, Straumann said.)

This is a chance for them to “clear up their library cards so they’re ready for the school year,” Straumann said.

It provides a lift given that “kids don’t always have control of things that lead to fines,” she said, adding that through the program, they can take responsibility.

More broadly, “We hear from families that this is an opportunity to build a better relationship with the library. I think there can be a lot of shame associated with library fines,” she said. It’s also a “good point of connection with the staff. The kids see them as there to help them.”

Growing participation

Since its launch, the response to “Read Down Your Fines” has grown. In 2013, its first year, 229 young people “read down” a total of $1,266.71 in fines, according to library information. Last summer, 359 read down $1,854.14. Since June 1 this year, 306 kids have read about 417.5 hours, saving $1,669.74. That’s on pace to match or surpass last year, since there’s always a rush at the end, Straumann said.

The program ties in with hands-on activities geared toward summer reading, such as “Bookawocky,” in which children submit reviews of books in words or pictures for a chance to win prizes.

The library also hosts a series of performances at nine locations over the summer. Those have “a literacy bent of some sort or they’re geared toward the arts,” Straumann said. It could be music, magicians or jugglers. “It’s a big draw,” she said.

A four-day songwriting workshop with musician James Hersch involves composing, arranging and recording original music. “The way he sets up the structure of a song, he encourages the kids to play around with language,” she said. Other activities include “story walks” in local parks, Weird Science Wednesdays and various workshops.

Parents’ perspective

Jena Kolles, Jacinta and Amara’s mother, said the read-down program offers “a simple, fun way to stay on track with learning over the summer.” She tries to make sure her children keep reading, she said, but “we don’t always get to spend as much time enjoying the space, hanging out and experiencing the library as more of a destination” as opposed to a quick stop.

The program is “a great win-win situation. It encourages more reading and they can pay down those fines,” she said, adding, “We’re not talking big money and that’s the brilliance of it. It’s so simple and easy.”

Ashley Wolff of Ramsey agreed. Her 5-year-old son, Calvin, likes “reading out, not being at home,” so it’s fitting. This summer he’s read down $4 worth of fines.

Calvin gravitates toward picture books, children’s cookbooks (“he loves to cook and he wants to be on the Food Network TV show “Chopped,” she said) and stories related to Star Wars and Legos.

“It’s nice he can take responsibility for his own fines and that he can [be] in control of his own library card,” Wolff said. “I want to instill a love of reading and learning in him, and I think this is really helpful.”


Freelancer Anna Pratt can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.