Fine-free libraries: St. Paul reflects after five years, Dakota County joins growing movement

A street banner reads "Welcome to your library"
The St. Paul Public Library’s George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul on Friday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

It’s been five years since St. Paul Public Library dropped overdue fines, and patrons are still finding relief at the front desk — where they are handed forgiveness instead of a charge. 

It’s just not what many readers have been used to. 

Libraries have long relied on overdue fines to make sure books are returned to the shelves — and for some cash — but in recent years, the norm has shifted. Libraries from Louisville to Los Angeles have slashed their traditional fines in a push for accessibility. 

That’s been the case in St. Paul, which was one of the earlier libraries in the Twin Cities metro area to drop daily overdue fines in 2018. That change wiped out more than $2.5 million in existing debt, welcoming 42,000 patrons back to the library, according to library staff.

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Since then, several other libraries have followed suit, including nearby Hennepin County and Ramsey County. The latest to join the list is Dakota County, which retired the old standard on Jan. 2.  

Going fine free brings apprehension from some, but Margaret Stone, director of the Dakota County Library, is not worried. She said she kept a pulse on fine-free libraries nationally and nearby, watching their usage increase after dropping daily fines.

At St. Paul Public Library, circulation of library materials increased by nearly 2 percent in the first year after fines were eliminated. That circulation included 85,000 items checked out on cards that had previously been blocked.

The fine-free proposal added $215,000 per year to the library budget to ensure the elimination of fines would not affect library services, but fines were not a stable source of funding for the library.

“Due to the rise in electronic materials, which do not accrue late fines, and other factors, fines are not a sustainable form of revenue for the library. Money collected from fines and fees has gone down steadily for the past 10 years,” a statement on the library’s website said.

Between 2008 and 2017, that revenue dropped 39 percent, bringing in $179,810 in fees in the final year before the penalty went away, according to Stacy Opitz, the library’s communication manager. Since 2017 — the year before the change went into effect — circulation of library materials is up about 5 percent, she added.

And Maureen Hartman, the director of St. Paul Public Library, said the number of “missing” books has not changed since removing the penalty.

“I think the way that libraries have thought about this in the past was that nobody would do the right thing unless they were being charged for it. And what we’ve found and proved in St. Paul is the opposite is true,” Hartman said. “We don’t need to be punished or shamed, we’ll take care of our community because it’s the right thing to do.”

Hartman said the need for the change became evident after months of research, including conversations with community members who said the fines kept them away from the library. 

“Everybody, even librarians, return books late,” Hartman said. “But some of us in our community have the means to pay those fines and others don’t.”

The facade of the George Latimer Central Library.
The St. Paul Public Library’s George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

In Dakota County, the same motivation is behind the change. The library first tested out the concept in 2022 by slashing youth fines. The change was followed by an 11 percent increase in youth books and movies getting checked out, according to Stone.

It was also followed by a 30 percent increase in total “use activity,” which Stone defined as any time a library card is used in the system. That could be for requesting a book, using a database or checking out materials.

“That really showed that fines are a barrier,” Stone said. “Because once we eliminated them, people came back and started using.”

Last year, the Dakota County library gathered $75,000 in fines. Stone said the loss of that revenue was not factored into the budget for this year.

Without fines, there is still a limit to how long books can stay in the laps of readers. Like in St. Paul, tardy patrons in Dakota County will be blocked from checking out materials and charged the cost of material that has been gone long enough to be considered missing. In Dakota County, that’s a buffer of 42 days overdue before readers are blocked from reserving more.

“Once they bring the item back, it goes away,” Stone said. “That’s just incentive for people to remember to bring back their books.”

Bringing back their books means coming back to the library. To Stone, that’s what this new direction is all about. She wants people to get full use out of libraries — not just by checking out books, but by taking advantage of meeting rooms, digital access and classes.

“We’re more important than we’ve ever been with the spaces that we offer. Where do you go when you’ve been hanging out for a while and you don’t have to pay for something or buy something? There aren’t very many places like that,” Stone said. “Libraries are that place.”