The Ramsey County Library has stopped collecting late fees on children's and teen books and other juvenile materials, joining a growing group of libraries across the country — including the St. Paul Public Library — that are doing the same to remove reading and educational barriers.

The county library also is forgiving more than $200,000 in charges racked up by library users under the age of 18. It's a clean slate for the library system's 50,000-plus juvenile library card holders, said Library Director Jill Boldenow.

"We want to send a really strong message. We are here for parents, children and teens," Boldenow said. "The library has an amazing set of resources for them. We want to remove all the barriers we can and welcome them in the door."

Late fees remain the norm. More than 90% of libraries that responded to a 2017 survey reported collecting fines, according to an article in the trade publication Library Journal. "A substantial majority of public libraries continue to depend on fines and fees for some portion of revenue," the story said.

But several libraries across the United States — including those in Los Angeles, Chicago and Fargo, as well as St. Paul — have eliminated fines for some or all of their patrons in response to research showing that late fees dissuade library users and especially lower-income patrons.

The new policy, which took effect Jan. 1, means that the Ramsey County Library will forgo about $160,000 annually in fines levied against children's and teen materials. Boldenow said the difference will be made up through the library's $12 million property tax levy.

The library system has more than 313,000 card holders who patronize libraries in Maplewood, Mounds View, New Brighton, North St. Paul, Roseville, Shoreview and White Bear Lake.

Before the policy change, late fees for children's and teen items accrued at a rate of 10 cents per day. A library card was frozen when the patron's fines exceeded $10.

Boldenow said frozen library cards were preventing youngsters from checking out materials. But officials also believe the threat of fines discouraged some families from checking out more books.

"It's both the fear of fines and the actual fines on kids' materials that can alter people's behavior. We don't want that to happen," Boldenow said.

Late fines will be waived for children's materials even if an adult checks them out, since parents often use their cards for their children, she said.

The policy also will help schoolteachers who frequently check out large quantities of library materials for their classrooms. Ramsey County allows a card holder to check out as many as 150 items at a time.

Young patrons still will be notified if their books are overdue, and assessed a fee if a book is damaged or lost. That fee will be assessed 34 days after the overdue date. Adult items will continue to accrue late fees at 30 cents per day.

Waiving late fees is one way that Ramsey County is trying to address the state's educational achievement gap, Boldenow said, where students of color as a group score lower on standardized tests than white counterparts.

"We are truly trying to solve the problem," she said.

Parents and their children browsing the stacks of the Roseville Library on Wednesday said they were thrilled that fines have been eliminated on youth materials.

Joanna and Ben Burton and their two children drive to Roseville from their south Minneapolis home each week to check out books. "It's awesome they are doing this, especially for children's materials," Joanna Burton said. "I've had a couple times I've had to pay a fine. It can add up quickly."

Roseville mom Lindsay Brist said most of her library fines are for storybooks that end up misplaced. Youngsters like to page through their books several times during the week, she said, and it's nice that parents won't have to pay extra if a favorite book inadvertently slides under the couch.

Ramsey County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter said lifting late fines on youth materials is part of a greater effort to increase "well-being and create opportunity in our community."

"We don't feel like we went out on a limb. We are pursuing this in a methodical and careful way," Carter said.

Washington County Library Director Amy Stenftenagel said the system has no record of ever charging late fees, stretching back for more than 50 years.

"Fees create barriers for people to use the library," she said. "We don't want to do that for our patrons. ... We are really excited other library systems are doing the same."

The St. Paul Public Library, which for years has waived late fees on children's items, went a step further a year ago and eliminated late fines for all its 305,000 library card holders. Like Ramsey County, fees are still charged for damaged and stolen items.

St. Paul Library Director Catherine Penkert said her team is still crunching the numbers but that the trends for much of the first fine-free year have been positive.

The number of items in circulation has increased, and many people whose cards were blocked due to fines are returning to the library.

"In 2019, over 85,000 items were checked out on formerly blocked cards," she said. "Overall, things are more likely to be overdue by about 1 to 1½ days but less likely to be extremely overdue."

Many St. Paul patrons have expressed relief over the new policy. Some have said that unforeseen events such as hospitalization, bad weather and lack of transportation kept them from returning books on time and fines began to pile up, Penkert said.

"That has been really fulfilling and that's really the goal: to reset the relationship with library users and to say we want you in the library," she said.