Duluth gives 'virtual' library cards to public school students

Duluth students will no longer have to keep track of a library card — and they won't have to pay late fees — thanks to a new collaboration between the Duluth school district and the Duluth Public Library.

The district's roughly 8,500 students will be able to access live homework help and tutoring, flash cards, e-books and magazines, DVDs, research databases, practice ACT/SAT tests, and other resources at the public library.

"We know it's an important issue around equity that all of our students have access to the resources they need to be successful in school," said Duluth schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth. "This will give them continuous access."

All students will be automatically issued a unique "Library Port" number — they won't receive a physical card. Parents can opt out of the program if they choose. Teachers can also access digital resources to use in the classroom.

Students will also be able to check out up to five items, and if they return them late, they won't have to pay any late fees. To encourage students to return books or DVDs they fail to return, they won't be able to check out as many items until they return what's missing.

That fundamentally changes the relationship kids have with the library, said Duluth Public Library youth services and branch supervisor Susan Schumacher, from something that "can be punitive or cost you money," to a place that's "a community resource for everyone."

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While anyone in the community can use the library for free, Schumacher said the virtual cards can still eliminate barriers for families without permanent addresses, students who have accrued late fees they can't pay back, and for parents who don't have time to take their kids to the library.

"Now the library will be right at the school with the children, right in their home. So that will really level the playing field for everyone," she said.

The Duluth virtual cards are modeled after a program at the St. Paul Public Library called Library Go.

Officials at the Minnesota Department of Education don't track the number of libraries and school districts that have launched similar efforts, but said a handful are working together to improve library access, part of a national trend that started in 2016 as part a federal program launched in 2016 called the ConnectED Library Challenge.

The Duluth Library Port program rolls out on Oct. 1.