Paying late fees at the Children's Resource Center Library, home to a collection of juvenile and young adult materials, on Napoleon Avenue in New Orleans on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. The New Orleans Public Library will no longer charge late fines on youth materials, a move aimed at encouraging more children and teens to use the library.

Public libraries are for everyone, but they can be especially pivotal in kids’ lives. Libraries are where children, regardless of their families’ means, can follow their interests and imaginations wherever they lead and find the resources to help make the journey. They also provide the tools to assist students in their schoolwork. So it’s important to ensure that there are as few impediments to access as possible.

The New Orleans Public Library has just taken a significant step in the right direction. Starting this month, the system will no longer impose daily late fines on books and movies aimed at kids. It will still charge a one-time fee for material that’s not returned after 90 days and will also forgive fines for items borrowed before the program’s start date for kids who submit book reports.

The idea behind the change, officials at the library say, is to remove a potential barrier.

New Orleans Public Library to eliminate late fines for 'youth materials'

“We want everyone to utilize all that the library offers, and eliminating fines on youth materials is a big step in ensuring that is possible,” said interim Library Director Jessica Styons.

The move is in line with a position advocated by the American Library Association, which cites studies showing that teens tend to avoid libraries if they have outstanding fines. Sometimes those fines grow, librarians say, not because kids are careless but because their parents or guardians don’t act in time.

Officials at the East Baton Rouge Public Library, which has had a policy of not fining kids for about a decade, say the trade-off is worth it. Before the system adopted the change, spokeswoman Kayla Perkins said, librarians saw kids who weren’t allowed to get library cards because their parents worried about late fees.

Since the new policy kicked in, the system has seen more visits from more kids, particularly from low-income households.

The revenue hit has been minor, because fines were only a nickel a day and penalties for children topped out at $1 an item. In New Orleans, where total fines on youth materials account for less than one quarter of a percent of the system’s operating budget, officials also predict minimal impact.

Late fines do serve a purpose besides making money, of course. They also encourage timely returns so that libraries can keep their shelves stocked with books and other media that their patrons want. But they should never be so punitive as to stress kids out, make them responsible for circumstances they can’t control or deter them from visiting and using these resources in the first place.

By taking this one potential obstacle off the table, New Orleans is following Baton Rouge’s lead in making its libraries into even more welcoming spaces for all.