Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) staff members have been concerned about inequities related to overdue fines for years. The Library has taken many steps to decrease the impact of fines on library users, including:
- Eliminating fines on children’s and young-adult materials
- Offering “read downs” (spending time reading in exchange for a reduction or write-off of overdue fines) to anyone, any time the Library is open
- Not charging overdue fines on Library Go cards, virtual library cards provided to all Saint Paul Public School students
Early in 2018, collections staff members asked for a meeting with the Library’s Equity Change Team to discuss the continuing negative impact of library fines on people in Saint Paul. In 2016, members of a Library Leadership Academy team had conducted extensive research and raised the issue of late fines as a barrier. Staff members wanted to continue drawing attention to the issue. As they reviewed data, they noticed a disturbing trend: branches in low-income neighborhoods had higher percentages of blocked cards. As the Equity Change Team staff members looked at the data, they shared stories of painful interactions with patrons who could not afford to pay their fines. This discussion catalyzed a staff-led project to explore the impact of fines and available options for reducing barriers to library use.
We formed a cross-departmental project team that included staff members from the Library, along with the City’s technology and finance departments, to get to work. The team produced GIS maps of blocked library cards, completed a financial analysis of policy options, reviewed research, and interviewed colleagues from fine-free library systems across the country.
The team used the City’s Racial Equity Assessment Toolkit to guide their work. The toolkit provides a framework to assess and plan for major changes in policies, programs, budgets, or practices. The toolkit advises that teams should get community input to guide their decisions. The quantitative data clearly demonstrated a strong overlap between blocked cardholders and areas of poverty where more than 50% of residents are people of color. Still, the team wanted to hear directly from community members about their experiences with fines.
Fortunately, the Library was simultaneously leading an extensive community learning process to inform a new strategic plan. The process engaged more than 2,000 people from diverse demographic groups all over Saint Paul. Through that process, we learned that Saint Paul residents across race, ethnicity, age, gender, education level, and neighborhood affinity consistently cited fines, and even just the fear of fines, as a reason not to visit the Library. People said things like, “I really love the library and it makes me sad that I haven’t been able to make use of it because of this policy on fines.”
While the research clearly pointed to the Library’s fines as an equity barrier, one major barrier stood in the way of changing our policy: the Library depends on revenue from overdue fines to fund our technology purchases. Fines revenue goes directly into our operating budget to pay for mission-critical investments like public computers and hotspots.
We brought forward this dilemma during the City’s budget process. We made the case for eliminating late fines and requested additional General Fund support to cover the loss of fines revenue. Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who had been elected based on his vision of “a city that works for all,” immediately realized the opportunity. For a relatively modest investment, the Library could redesign its operations to improve equity and, in doing so, make libraries more welcoming and accessible to all. Without fines as a barrier, staff members could focus their work on connecting people to the information, materials, and resources they want and need.
The Mayor formally proposed eliminating late fines by including a $215,000 increase for the Library in his General Fund budget proposal. In December 2018, City Council will vote on whether or not to include this proposal in their adoption of the City’s budget. If adopted, this proposal would provide sufficient funding for technology, while eliminating the need to rely on fines revenue. Library users would still be charged for lost or damaged items, but daily overdue fines would become a relic of the past.
For more information on our process and findings, visit sppl.org/fine-free.