S.F. Eliminates Overdue Library Fees

A study found that overdue fines largely exclude low-income patrons from borrowing books.

Supervisors voted Tuesday to make overdue library fees a thing of the past, joining a fine-free movement aimed at upholding its mission of free and equal access.

The Board of Supervisors approved legislation on Tuesday to eliminate library fines for overdue materials, wiping out $1.5 million in existing fees. Mayor London Breed has already spoken in support of the plan, which will go into effect a month after she signs the ordinance. Berkeley and San Diego, like more than 50 other jurisdictions, have also eliminated overdue fees.

The San Francisco Library Commission already approved the changes to library fines in January after the Treasurer’s Office released a study on the fine-free movement. The department found that fines are not only ineffective in ensuring library materials are returned, but disproportionately affect low-income patrons. Under the new fee rates, fees for lost or damaged items would remain.

“As a city, we need to make sure that we are not placing unnecessary burdens on people to access our public resources,” Mayor London Breed said in January. “In this case, the fines and fees are overwhelmingly affecting people in our community from disadvantaged backgrounds, which undermines the goal of the library and reinforces inequality in our city.”

Overdue material typically costs 10 cents each day, or five cents for seniors, for a maximum of five dollars. Without overdue fees for juvenile accounts, 34.8 percent of patrons are adults. And once they owe more than $10, they’re blocked from borrowing more material until it’s paid.

Nearly 35 percent of borrowers owe an average of $23.40, and five percent of current have blocked accounts due to unpaid fines. But a lofty nearly 90 percent of patrons faced a blocked account at some point, some who remained blocked due not being able to afford fines, according to the study. (One surveyed user said they couldn’t check out books for years after falling ill and being unable to settle their library debt.)

Though late-returns are similar citywide, patrons of the Bayview branch owe an average of $45.63 and 11 percent have blocked accounts — showing that disparities exist even in the seemingly-innocuous world of libraries. 

The study also found that fiscal impact would be minimal, attributing overdue fines collected in 2018 as just 0.2 percent of its operating budget. In addition, collecting fines takes up almost 3,500 staff hours a year that could otherwise be used on other librarian duties.

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