See more of the story

Carlos Espitia, branch manager and librarian at St. Paul’s Riverview Library, said the end of fines for overdue books has brought many patrons back to the library.

Espitia, who worked for the Dakota County libraries before coming to St. Paul in August, said now that the pressure to pay is gone, there’s a new comfort level between library patrons and staff.

“There’s no real polite way to tell somebody that they owe you money,” Espitia said. “I think it makes your conversations and your insights with people a lot more genuine when you’re not forcing them to pay you.”

Since the fine-free policy went into effect last January, circulation has grown by 1.8% at libraries citywide, a reversal from the downward trend over the past 10 years, said St. Paul Public Library Director Catherine Penkert.

Some branches saw double-digit increases, including Riverview, on the city’s West Side, at 13.2%, and Arlington and Dayton’s Bluff at more than 12%.

Nearly 42,000 previously blocked cardholders checked out twice that many items.

Mayor Melvin Carter introduced the fine-free policy as part of his 2019 budget after a six-month study conducted by the library system revealed nearly one in five cardholders were blocked citywide, with percentages even higher in low-income areas.

People were getting negative associations with the library, whether it was the result of their inability to pay, trouble getting to the library to return items or simply the shame of owing the library money, Penkert said.

“By going fine-free we were able to kind of ease that financial barrier, but also hopefully change the conversation about what our libraries are like and what’s it like to go to a library, and hopefully set a tone and send a clear message that we are welcoming,” Penkert said.

The St. Paul City Council approved the change in December 2018. The city erased more than $2.5 million in accumulated fees and reinstated all accounts blocked because they owed more than $10.

“Building a city that works for all of us means rethinking policies to meet our changing needs,” Carter said in a statement. “Eliminating late fines has expanded access to our libraries, and ensures this incredible resource is open to everyone in our community.”

Ramsey County Library followed suit earlier this month, stopping the collection of fines on overdue children and teen books and other juvenile materials for users under 18.

Mary Nelson Peasley brings her 3-year-old daughter to the library every week, either to check out books and movies or take part in the library’s storytime featuring readings, songs and puppets. At the Riverview Library on Thursday, Nelson Peasley, 36, called it a “hugely important resource ... not only just for access to books and education, but just community and relationship building.”

While fines for overdue books never kept Nelson Peasley away from the library, she said the new policy makes it more accessible to everyone.

“I think it’s a great incentive,” she said. “It removes ... the guilt and shame from having an overdue book.”

Mohamed Ibrahim (mohamed.ibrahim@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.