More libraries in the Twin Cities area are eliminating overdue fines that some say discourage usage and have a disproportionate impact on low-income patrons who may lose their borrowing privileges for failure to pay.
The Ramsey County Library system will eliminate adult late fees starting next week. The county system dropped fines for children and teens two years ago, and it suspended all fines when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
"Suspending fines during the pandemic in order to provide access to library resources and services proved to be very successful and will now be permanent," said Ramsey County Library Director Karen Saltis, in a written statement.
Eliminating library fees aligns with Ramsey County's broader strategies of putting "Residents First" and "Advancing Racial Equity," Saltis said. Under the former policy, library privileges were suspended for a patron with $10 or more in fees.
Also starting in the new year, the Dakota County Library system won't charge overdue fines on children and teen items because "all youth, no matter their circumstances, should have access to library resources," according to the library website. Dakota County will continue to assess late fees on adult materials.
The two suburban library systems join a growing list of libraries across the Twin Cities and the United States that are scrapping some or all of their fees to remove a potential roadblock for library use among needy people.
Libraries in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco have eliminated fines. Closer to home, the St. Paul Public Library eliminated fees in 2019, wiped away $2.5 million in accrued fees and then saw an uptick in usage.
The Hennepin County Library system nixed its overdue fees in 2021. The county also offered a "fresh start" to all users by wiping away debt that had accrued as of March 10 this year.
The Ramsey County Library Board plans to discuss how to address overdue balances at a future meeting. The library collects about $190,000 a year in adult fines.
Library leaders say it comes down to removing barriers to usage.
"Many children and teen cardholders are unable to use the library due to fines that are beyond their control. Research shows that fines on youth materials result in parental decisions not to use the library," according to the Dakota County Library website.
"Fines also create greater hardships in communities with higher rates of poverty. Libraries who removed overdue fines have seen an increase in new members, visitors and items checked out."
Most libraries will continue to charge patrons for replacement of lost or damaged materials.
Library fines have become a decreasing source of revenue in Dakota County as the popularity of digital materials — which do not accrue late fines — continues to grow.
Dakota County won't remove existing overdue balances, according to a county spokeswoman. But children and teens who previously weren't able to check out items because of fines will have their accounts unlocked.
Officials with the Ramsey County Library system, which includes seven suburban branches and 193,000 cardholders, said they were still determining the impact of eliminating juvenile fines in 2020.
"We do know that in 2020, with everything else going on, we had more than 800 formerly blocked accounts check out more than 9,000 items in just the first year. We anticipate this will continue to increase," said county spokeswoman Kristina Saksvig.