The SF Public Library cleared late fees for 260,000 patrons. I was one of them.

The SF Public Library cleared late fees for 260,000 patrons. I was one of them.

When the San Francisco Public Library said they’d forgive all overdue fees and fines, I’m not sure I appreciated the sheer scale and magnitude of the change.

Last Monday, the first day of the library’s new “fine free” effort, wiped clear fees from some 260,000 patrons, aiming to knock down any roadblocks to freely accessing information.

The library wants you back.

The program was years in the making, developed with the help of the San Francisco Treasurer and Tax Collector’s Office and fee justice advocates.

But San Francisco, the data reveals that we must all be terribly irresponsible at borrowing books — the number of patrons whose fines were forgiven amounted to almost a third of our city’s population!

I was one of them. But apparently my own reprieve was an accident.

More on that in a bit.

Of the library patrons who had fines wiped from their accounts, 123,137 were “active” patrons who had used their accounts at least once in the last three years, and 137,417 were patrons with inactive accounts, according to Cathy Delneo, the chief of branches at the San Francisco Public Library system.

Perhaps they moved? Perhaps they simply lapsed due to sheer embarrassment over their late fees? Who knows. At least now, they’ve been welcomed back.

Roughly 30 percent of adults using the library had overdue fines on their record, Delneo said. Most adults accumulate overdue fines at a rate of ten cents per day, per item, up to $5 per item.

“For some community members, those overdue fines were really impacting their ability to use their library, so we are really excited to make this move to Fine Free,” Delneo wrote to me in an email. As for those inactive patrons?

“We hope (they’ll) return to the library now that their fines are cleared,” Delneo said.

Though not everyone who owed a fine was barred from borrowing, some were. In July it was estimated about 11,000 people would regain their borrowing privileges under the effort. And I know at least one patron who will be checking out books again for the first time in more than a decade …


Twelve years ago, in what feels like another lifetime, I was a year into teaching full-time workshops as an artist-in-residence at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts High School. I had some documentary video editing work under my belt and was eager to share what I had learned with media department students.

In my excitement, I checked out just over a dozen books to bone up on every aspect of film and video editing. “On film editing,” by Edward Dmytryk, “The film editing room handbook” by Norman Hollyn, and one book that had the most impact on my editing ethos, “First cut: conversations with film editors” by Gabriella Oldham.

Reading such varied philosophies captured me. I drew up lesson plans based on film’s early steps out of the Silent Era, the works of Russian editing pioneers Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, and helped nourish students by the dozen through my editing courses.

But in my excitement, I may have, perhaps … misplaced a few of those books … and continued to draw on the lessons from others for years.

My overdue book fees soon turned to replacement fees. My replacement fees went to collections.

Soon I owed our fine library system $287 — and somehow, I just never got around to paying it.

My library card hadn’t been pulled out of my wallet for years before I finally threw it away altogether.

Now, this does not mean I did not utilize our city’s wonderful libraries. Far from it.

I highly enjoy hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood to enjoy the vibes of different branches. The Marina library was my first, the one I grew up perusing (and climbing on its rooftop as a teenager with my buds). I love reading comic books in the bright sunlight, sitting in the singular bench nestled in a window at North Beach branch, or hearing the always uplifting sound of children laughing over books in the Excelsior branch. I truly think the musty smell in the horticulture library next to the San Francisco County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park is reminiscent of the plants detailed in its dusty tomes.

And did you know Mission Bay has its own library branch just a block down from Oracle Park? It’s got a sunny view of the Mission Creek Channel. Beautiful!

Yet despite this library love, I had little hope that this “fine free” day would help me.

You see, the San Francisco Public Library has made it quite clear that this is about clearing overdue fines. That’s a separate pot of money than replacement fines, which made up the bulk of the $287 I owed.

So when I sat down to write this column, I decided that finally, I should pay off my debt to the library system.

I had my debit card in hand. I was ready. I steeled myself.

When I called 311 to finally come clean, a dutiful member of city government told me to hold my horses for a few days while they pulled up my info.

That’s when things got a little weird: Apparently an eagle-eyed staffer had realized I was trying to pay off my fines and tipped of Amanda Fried, spokesperson for the Treasurer and Tax Collector’s office. She contacted me and related an email from Bill Kolb, digital strategist at the San Francisco Public Library, who explained what happened.

Apparently, my fines had been totally wiped — even though they weren’t the type of fine the library promised to forgive.

The library’s “normal practice” is to periodically convert long-ago lost items in their collections to a “missing” status, and wipe some from the fine and fees system “in the interest of database maintenance and so that they don’t show up in our catalog,” Kolb wrote, in an email.

When that happens, he wrote, long-ago replacement fees are converted into fines.

Then that group of fines was purged as part of the “fine free” process and other normal library debt processes, as they were “so old that they were believed to be unrecoverable.”

The upshot? There isn’t one red cent for me to pay. I can already sense that internet furor.

But before you go scorching the Fine Free effort, know this: Others were far more dutiful than I. The Treasurer’s Office helped the library recover 5,160 unreturned items (sans my film editing books, of course) which were worth about $117,836 (and 25 cents) in a collections pilot program, which saw some 11,012 patrons in my situation become regular library users once again.

All of these efforts are working. And this weekend, I’m headed to the Richmond Branch library to do some serious book-hunting.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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