The San Francisco Library may soon stop charging fines for overdue books. (Cindy Chew/2008 S.F. Examiner)

SF could eliminate fines for overdue library books

San Francisco’s Library Commission is set to decide whether to do away with overdue fines altogether in a proposal backed by Mayor London Breed.

The commission could vote as early as Thursday to recommend eliminating fines and fees. The change would ultimately require a vote by the Board of Supervisors, which would likely occur during the June budget process.

“As a City, we need to make sure that we are not placing unnecessary burdens on people to access our public resources,” Breed said in a statement announcing the proposal Monday. “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.”

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In 2017, the San Francisco Examiner reported on a six-week fine amnesty period offered by the library at the start of the year and raised questions about whether there should be any fines.

Acting City Librarian Michael Lambert is bringing the proposal to the commission. It would not eliminate fees assessed for lost or damaged items.

The commission will also consider policy changes to have automatic renewals of borrowed items and reduce the time an item is billed to a patron from the current 60 days past due to 21 days past due.
If a person returns the item billed to them, they are not charged for the item and would no longer face overdue fines under the proposal.

“The Library is here for the people of San Francisco and we want everyone to be able to take advantage of our incredible collections and resources,” Lambert said in a statement. “There has never been a better time for us to eliminate overdue fines and reaffirm that all are welcome at the library.”

The proposal comes after the library partnered with the San Francisco Financial Justice Project in the Office of Treasurer José Cisneros to study how fines impact library users and what other libraries have done in the nation. The project’s report, also released Monday, found that “Overdue fines disproportionately affect low-income communities, African American communities, and communities without college degrees.”

“Currently, 11.2 percent of adult cardholders in the Bayview branch are blocked from using the library due exclusively to overdue fine accrual (and not because of lost or unreturned items), significantly more than in any other location and more than three times as many as in high-income areas of San Francisco,” the report found.

The library blocks cards of those who owe more than $10 in overdue fines and fees, meaning they can no longer borrow materials until the debt is paid.

Of the library’s 450,000 active patrons, 34.8 percent currently owe money for overdue fines or billed item fees with the average patron owing $23.40. Overdue charges $0.10 daily with a maximum overdue fine of $5. After 60 days, the patron is billed for the item.

As of November 2018, active patrons owed a total of $3.08 million in overdue fines and fees for billed items, the report found.

Library fines generate about $330,000 annually, about 0.2 percent of the Library’s overall budget.

City officials discussed going fine-free with other libraries that have already done so, including Salt Lake Public Library, Berkeley Public Library and the Nashville Public Library.

“The impact on on-time return rates and billed items is difficult to project, but experiences from those libraries that have made the change suggest they would range from negligible to slightly positive,” the report said.

“As the City’s debt collector, the research we conducted convinced me there are better tools to help people return books on time that don’t disproportionately burden low-income people and block people from accessing the library,” Cisneros said in a statement. “San Francisco should join libraries across the country and eliminate overdue fines that disproportionately burden low-income people and communities of color.”

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