The Duluth Public Library will no longer charge late fees or fines for overdue materials.
At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Mayor Emily Larson said: “We are going fine-free in the city of Duluth.”
She said the proposal to eliminate the charges was brought forth by library staff at an ideas fair.
“We know that fines disproportionately impact some of the readers and community members that we most deeply want to connect with,” Larson said.
In some of Duluth’s lowest-income neighborhoods, large numbers of children have lost their library privileges due to unpaid fines. In Duluth’s downtown and Central Hillside neighborhoods, three in every 10 children have lost the ability to check out materials. And in Lincoln Park, four in 10 children have been similarly affected.
The current system blocks out many families who would have the most to gain from library access, said Byron Johnson, the library’s head of circulation.
He said parents working two jobs may have a tough time returning materials in a timely fashion, meaning that whole households lose the ability to check out items.
“All too often, it hurts people who need it the most,” Johnson said.
Library Manager Carla Powers thanked Larson for embracing a fee-less future.
“We’re moving away from a punishment model for library services, with a slap on the hand if your books are late, to a more positive model of wanting to serve the community,” she said.
Under the library’s new model, patrons still will check out materials, and due dates will be assigned with the expectation of their timely return.
“You don’t get to keep it forever. The difference is if you happen to return a book a few days late, you won’t owe an overdue fine. But if you keep the book a very long time, and it’s weeks overdue, then the computer system will declare it lost, and the cost of the book will be assessed to your account,” Powers said.
Until the book is returned or the replacement cost is paid, a library patron would then be unable to check out any more materials.
“So, in closing, if overdue fines are keeping you from using the library or maybe just the thought of overdue fines makes you intimidated or a little bit afraid, I would encourage you to come back and rediscover the public library,” Powers said.
She said staff are prepared to accept the return of overdue materials and to waive charges. More than 7,600 library patrons who are currently blocked from borrowing Duluth library materials stand to see their privileges restored under the new rules.
“The public library is not only for people who can always remember to return things on time. It’s not only for people who have the capacity to pay an overdue fine. Now that we are free from fines, it’s very clear that the Duluth Public Library is for everyone in the community,” Powers said.
This year, Duluth libraries expected to collect about $68,000 in fines, with about another $21,000 in uncollected fines anticipated to remain on the books.
To put that in perspective, Larson noted that fine revenues account for less than 1 ½% of the library’s total $4.7 million budget.
Larson said: "We think that the city of Duluth can do away with those fines and provide that funding that's needed through the general fund in a way that is much more equitable, that helps more deeply engage families and communities, that makes sure that many of the neighborhoods that are experiencing some of those deepest economic disparities are not further marginalized by losing the resources here at the library."
Powers said Duluth has joined “a growing trend” of libraries nationwide that have done away with late fees. She noted that St. Paul took a similar step in January, as have libraries in Hibbing and Grand Marais.
“So far for them, it has been a positive experience. Their circulation has gone up. They’ve got more people using the library, and what their experience has been so far is the number of overdues is kind of the same as it was before. … But there are more people using the library, more items being checked out, and that’s really what this is about,” Powers said.