After four months of no longer charging for overdue materials, the Duluth Public Library is working on educating people that its materials still have due dates.

"I think in some cases people think because there's no fine that's something's not really due," said library manager Carla Powers.

Anyone who keeps overdue items four weeks after the due date will receive a bill for the item, as the library will assume it's lost. Their library account will also be blocked so they can't check anything else out until the item's taken care of. If the item is not lost, the library user can return it free of charge.

Since going fine-free, the library has seen some slight increases in overdue items when comparing numbers between Tuesday and a day in July 2019, and the same can be said for circulation. Library employees hope that's a sign the fine-free initiative has had an effect on the community.

Shortly after the library went fine-free, library technician Lynn Schwarzkopf said she was hosting a community literacy night when she explained the new initiative. After the crowd applauded, one man later approached her and said he was excited to start using the library again.

"Hopefully we helped him and the children in his life reach the library resources more," Schwarzkopf said.

Since going fine-free in September, the library has seen higher turnover rates for 44% of its juvenile collections, according to circulation data.

Another time, Schwarzkopf said a woman came into the library to ask how much she owed.

"She was so pleased to find it was gone, it meant a lot to her," Schwarzkopf said. "And she said, 'I think you're going to have a lot of people coming back to the library.'"

Library technician Kim Adams recalled when one patron, shortly after the library went fine-free, returned over $300 worth of material she had been billed for.

Librarian technician Karen Mehelich works at the downtown Duluth Public Library Wednesday, checking in and placing holds on returned books. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Librarian technician Karen Mehelich works at the downtown Duluth Public Library Wednesday, checking in and placing holds on returned books. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"It's kind of a common theme," Adams said. "I can think of another woman who brought back several things and told us she hadn't been to the library and she'd been too embarrassed to bring them back."

There was a sense of shame that kept people away from the library, Adams said, and the fine-free initiative has erased that.

Head of circulation services Byron Johnson said the library staff no longer has as many negative interactions with patrons and that going fine-free eliminated the threat of a fine that would prevent some people from even using the library.

The move also signals a sense of trust, he said.

"We trust that you're going to bring the books back," Johnson said, later adding: "It's really nice to have a governmental organization putting that trust in the community."

Aside from at the Mt. Royal Branch, the library doesn't have any more lost or missing items than it did before going fine-free. According to library circulation data, since going fine-free, 54% of collections have either seen a decrease in lost items, or that number stayed the same.

The 89 collections include categories such as adult nonfiction, young adult graphic novels and juvenile illustrated fiction.

Still, Johnson said library staff have noticed misunderstandings about due dates among patrons.

"We just really want to emphasize due dates. Think about the other people who would want these," Johnson said. "These are shared resources that are helping people increase opportunities."

Patrons can renew items up to two times if no one else is waiting for them. Items can be renewed online, over the phone, at the library or by using an automated call system when the library's closed.

All three library locations have drop-off boxes patrons can use while the library's closed.

Candace Fagen checks out two books at the downtown Duluth Public Library Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Candace Fagen checks out two books at the downtown Duluth Public Library Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)