SAN FRANCISCO—SF Mayor London Breed announced on Monday, January 14, that the San Francisco Public Library will propose getting rid of fines for overdue returns in an effort to increase library access to the public.
According to a press release from the Mayor’s Office, the SFPL has partnered with the San Francisco Financial Justice Project in the Office of Treasurer José Cisneros to study the issue and interview libraries across the country who have gone “fine-free.” Research has shown that the fines create a barrier to equitable access of resources and services and disproportionately affect low-income San Franciscans.
“As a City, we need to make sure that we are not placing unnecessary burdens on people to access our public resources,” said Mayor Breed. “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.”
The Library discovered that patrons across the region, regardless of income, miss return deadlines at similar rates. Patrons in low-income areas face more difficulty in paying the fines and fees associated with overdue items, which leads to overdue fines causing existing inequalities. For example, roughly 11 percent of the Bayview’s adult cardholders are blocked from accessing library materials, which is over three times as many as in most high-income locations. Across the City, branches that serve lower-income populations have a larger share of blocked patrons.
“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. San Francisco should join libraries across the country and eliminate overdue fines that disproportionately burden low-income people and communities of color,” said San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros.
Library fines produce approximately $330,000 in revenue each year, which represents 0.2 percent of the Library’s budget. The revenue is expected to continue to decrease over time, as digital and e-books become more common. Several libraries have gone fine-free reported that they spent more money to collect fines than they generated in revenue, and the move to get rid of fines freed up staff time to devote to more worthwhile activities.
“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,” said Acting City Librarian Michael Lambert. “There has never been a better time for us to eliminate overdue fines and reaffirm that all are welcome at the library.”
None of the libraries surveyed that have gone fine-free saw a reduction in circulation or increase in late returns. If the proposal is adopted, Library patrons will still be liable for returning books on time. Patrons who do not return their books will need to either replace, or pay for the value of, any materials not returned. The report recommends several administrative changes to help rise the return rate, including sending out additional reminders, and shortening the timeframe before a book needs to be replaced or paid for.
The recommendation to go fine-free follows recent efforts to reduce the amount of outstanding debt, and to energize inactive patrons and recover materials. San Francisco Public Library has executed four amnesty periods over the last 20 years, and recently worked with the Treasurer’s Bureau of Delinquent Revenue to run a collections campaign in 2018.
The report developed by The Financial Justice Project and the San Francisco Public Library is titled: “Long Overdue: Eliminating Fines on Overdue Materials to Improve Access to San Francisco Public Library.” The Library Commission will be hearing the proposal at their meeting on Thursday, January 17.