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Dakota County Library system to waive overdue fees in April event

Pleasant Hill Library is located at 1490 South Frontage Road, Hastings. In addition to its collection of books, videos, audiobooks and more, the library offers programs most weekdays. File photo

Mirroring other library systems statewide and nationally, the Dakota County Library system plans to waive overdue material fines during an eight-day period in April.

The library has about 10,000 active users blocked, those who have been to the library within two years, and 23,000 total users blocked. The fee waiving effort has a projected loss of $30,000 for the system, but officials hope it will be worth it through encouraging blocked users to return and stick around, while attracting newcomers.

"Nationally, public libraries are looking at fines because we've come to recognize they are a barrier to service," said Margaret Stone, director of Dakota County Library.

The Dakota County Board approved the fee amnesty event on Tuesday with one dissenting vote. The board discussion was centered around the fairness of the event for those who have paid their fines, said board chairperson Liz Workman.

"This is not exactly fair to them and I get that," she said. "The whole idea is to get people into the libraries and if it's a fine that's preventing people from getting books [we should address that.]"

Dakota County's library system blocks users once overdue fines reach $25 for adults and $10 for kids, Stone said. Recently, that revenue has dropped.

In 2010, late fines brought in $644,846, but dropped to $391,858 for 2017.

This is in part due to increased efforts by the library system to notify users through text or email of impending fines and increased usage of electronic resources, Stone said.

Fee amnesty events are usually focused at alleviating fines for low-income library users, whose access is more harshly affected by overdue fines, she said.

St. Paul's library system recently removed late fees entirely from its library system — citing research that showed late fines were ineffective — and Rochester held an amnesty event in 2017. Nationally, a Baltimore library system eliminated fines this year and Denver plans to follow suit in 2019.

Stone said she believes the fines are largely affecting low-income users in Dakota County as well.

"Most people in Dakota County can pay those fines, it's not a big deal," she said, noting the county's status as one of the highest per-capita income counties in Minnesota. "But for some people who are working two people's jobs to just make ends meet ... having to pay $25 can impact what they're having for dinner that night."

While St. Paul and other cities have dropped fines entirely, Stone said she isn't ready to discuss that option yet. She hopes to use the event to gather more data on the full extent of fines' effects on users to better inform the library system's decisions.

"If I find that the fines are acting as a barrier, then we will have a conversation about the next step," she said. "There are a lot more things we can do before dropping fines entirely."

The library system held an event targeted at kids' access and waived overdue fines in 2014, in an effort to improve library access for children.

While specific details are still being determined, the library fine amnesty event will be held April 6-13, coinciding with National Library Week and the system's 50th birthday. Stone encouraged users to reach out to the library system officials to learn more about the event as it comes closer.

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