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Maggie Taylor, 5, of Cheyenne gets help from her mother, Alyx Taylor, checking out books for both school and pleasure on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, at the Laramie County Library in Cheyenne. The library’s Board of Directors discussed the idea of eliminating fees related to children's materials in the hopes of retaining lower-income families. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Library late fees may soon become a thing of the past for kids in Laramie County.

County Librarian Carey Hartmann asked her board Tuesday to consider joining a growing number of American libraries in abolishing fees on overdue children’s materials.

The library gains very little from late fees, she told them, and anecdotes and research suggest when a child or their parent gets their card blocked for $10 or so in accumulated fines, they often stop coming, defeating the educational purpose of the library.

“It’s especially rough on families in lower socioeconomic levels,” Hartmann said in an earlier interview. “If you’re working two or three jobs, bringing back a library book on time may not be your first priority, but then your children’s library card is blocked and you can’t check books out.”

She added that with the library’s upcoming push to get low-income families using the library more through its First Steps program, that dynamic was the last thing the library wanted.

She acknowledged there could be concerns with losing revenue, but offered data showing the library collected around $20,000 in fees from juveniles in fiscal year 2018 – less than half of 1 percent of the $5.7 million projected budget.

“The argument that this would damage our budget is not a very strong one,” she said.

Board members made no final decision; a committee of them will study the idea over the next few months and could have a proposal for initial review in February or March.

If ultimately approved, kids and their parents will still be responsible for loaned items, Hartmann said: If books or other materials are kept for several weeks beyond a due date, the library will bill them for the cost of replacement. But if they just bring the book back at that point, all would be forgiven.

If Hartmann gets the board’s support, Laramie County would join a growing number of public libraries ending some or all fines in an effort to be more accessible to patrons.

A 2017 survey of roughly 500 American libraries by trade publication Library Journal showed most respondents still charge late fees.

But after generations as a sacred cow, the fines may be in retreat.

In neighboring Albany County, the library system has gone without them for most items for around eight years, Director Ruth Troyanek said, and things are going well.

“It’s definitely made the library’s resources more family-friendly and accessible to families,” Troyanek said. Much of the tension between staff and patrons with late fees is gone, too, she added.

Public libraries in states like California, Florida, Illinois and Ohio have taken similar approaches.

And across the state line, the Colorado State Library recommends libraries eliminate fines for children’s materials and other items they deem appropriate.

The recommendation came following 2013 research into the benefits and impacts of the fees that concluded fines did little or nothing to decrease overdue rates, but plenty to make low-income families feel unwelcome in libraries.

The State Library also found concerns about losing what has long been considered an essential way to encourage timely returns didn’t hurt High Plains Library District in Weld County too much.

Six months after the district got rid of most fines in 2015, “overall circulation was up, and 95 percent of their materials were returned within a week of the due date.”

The Poudre River Library District in Fort Collins, Colorado, got rid of late fees for children and teen materials at the beginning of the year, and Tuesday, District Executive Director David Slivken said early results have also been encouraging.

“I believe our circulation of children and teen materials is up a little bit,” Slivken said. “And for years and years, it’s been going down every year.”

He said the cost would be around $20,000 this year – about the same as what Hartmann expects – but he wasn’t worried.

“Our total budget is about $10.5 million,” he said. “We think it’s a really small investment to reach these communities.”

Laramie County Library Board members offered early positive reviews.

Board member Sharon Fain said she couldn’t think of anyone who would oppose helping more kids read.

“Anything we can do to encourage kids and their parents to check books out and read together at home, we fully support,” she said.

Board Chairwoman Julie Daniels was a little more circumspect.

“It sounds like it could have a profound impact on people’s lives,” she said, “so it’s important that we take it serious and make the best decision for the community. I’d like to know what people think.”

Austin Huguelet is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. He can be reached at ahuguelet@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3182. Follow him on Twitter at @ahuguelet.

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