When Maureen Hartman, an assistant director at the St. Paul Public Library, tells a new acquaintance where she works, they often react with shame.
“The first thing they say to me is, ‘Oh god, I’m overdue for some books, I’m so sorry,'” she said. “I don’t want that to be the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks of the library.”
It’s not now.
In recent years, a “free of fines” movement has swept the country and now encompasses 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 from people’s mistakes contradicted libraries’ mission to be a welcoming place where people congregate, access information, and seize opportunities.
Now, as librarians increasingly fill a variety of roles — book finders, story readers, resume writing coaches, even Narcan administrators — they have a new role as quasi-fairy godmothers that make late fees disappear.
Everyone returns books late sometimes, “even people who work in libraries,” Hartman admits. But the consequences were mixed.
Before going fine in January 2019, about 42,000 St. Paul cardholders — 17% of the customers in the system — had their borrowing privileges suspended because of fines of $10 or more. Although revenue from fines was a tiny fraction of the library’s budget, for some users, paying fines meant saving on shopping.
After card balances were zeroed and lending privileges reinstated, St. Paul library staff held their breath: Would patrons hoard all the books without penalty?
It turns out that cardholders who were suspended in St. Paul came back in droves. In 2019, this group checked out around 85,000 articles. Now only 1% of cards are blocked because a patron doesn’t return an item or pay the replacement cost within 41 days of the due date.
Patrons still returned items in a timely manner.
“People know that this is a common good and they will use it as needed and share it with everyone else,” Hartman said.
From automatic renewal to freedom from fines
In 2018, Hennepin County Library implemented an automatic renewal feature. Overdue fines went down and customers loved the convenience.
“And the staff breathed a sigh of relief that all of our stuff was coming back,” said systems librarian Phil Feilmeyer.
The abolition of 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 barred from borrowing. In some census counties, a third of all cardholders have been suspended; now the highest rate is 7%.
And patrons’ access to materials hasn’t changed much. The average time customers kept books increased slightly from 24 to 27 days. For browsers, at least 70% of the collection is on the shelf at all times, just as it was before.
Instead of haggling over a $2 fine, staff can now focus on helping customers, said Hartman, a 25-year library veteran who believes immunity from fines will soon be universal.
“I don’t think anything in public libraries excited me more than this movement,” she said. “It’s so transformative.”