A Library for All San Franciscans

Many of us have experienced that sinking feeling- the library book you checked out several weeks ago might be overdue, racking up late fines every day. But for those who can’t afford to pay the fines, the sinking feeling becomes worse: they can become blocked from accessing the library.

On January 17th, the San Francisco Public Library Commission voted to eliminate fines on overdue materials. The vote followed testimony from San Francisco residents and librarians in response to a report released by The Financial Justice Project and the Library titled “Long Overdue: Eliminating Fines on Overdue Materials to Improve Access to San Francisco Public Library.”

Through interviews with librarians across the country, surveys of library staff and patrons, and analysis of library data, the report finds that:

·       Overdue fines disproportionately impact low-income people, African American communities, and San Franciscans without college degrees. Library patrons across the city – regardless of income – miss return deadlines at similar rates. However, patrons in low-income areas face much more difficulty in paying the fines associated with overdue items. As a result, overdue fines can widen existing inequalities: 11.2 percent of Bayview’s adult cardholders are blocked from accessing library materials, more than three times as many as in high-income locations. Across the city, branches that serve lower-income populations have a greater share of blocked patrons.  

·       Overdue fines are not an effective tool to encourage returns. None of the libraries across the country that have eliminated overdue fines have experienced increases in late returns, longer hold times, or gaps in collections. In fact, some libraries saw their late-return rates drop following fine elimination. While overdue fines will be eliminated, patrons that do not return their books will still need to either replace, or pay for the value of, any materials that are not returned.

·       Research shows there are more effective tools to encourage people to return books. The report recommends several administrative changes to help increase the library’s return rate, including sending out more reminders, and shortening the time frame before a book needs to be replaced or paid for.

·       Eliminating overdue fines will increase access to the library. Once someone starts accruing overdue fines, their account can be blocked, restricting them from checking out library materials. Approximately 5% of all library cardholders have their cards blocked exclusively due to overdue fines.

The proposal will go to the Board of Supervisors next for a vote, likely as part of the June budget process. The recommended reform endorsed by Mayor London Breed, who said: “As a City, we need to make sure that we are not placing unnecessary burdens on people to access our public resources. 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.”