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San Francisco moves closer to eliminating library fees

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San Francisco has taken a step forward to eliminate overdue library fines in order to make libraries citywide equitable for every patron.

The Library Commission last Thursday night at its meeting approved the resolution to eliminate the overdue fines by a 6-1 vote with Commissioner John Lee in dissent. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will still need to vote on the matter which will be part of the library’s upcoming budget proposal.

A comprehensive report was released last Monday that showed how low-income residents, African Americans, and people without college degrees incur the most fines and get blocked from checking out library materials, the report said.

The report was a collaboration with the Office of Treasurer’s Office and the Financial Justice Project.

Joseph Monardo, a fellow with UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, prepared and presented the report titled “Long Overdue: Eliminating Fees on Overdue Materials to Improve Access to San Francisco Library” to the commission, said the library’s use of tacking on overdue fines does not align with the library’s mission statement which reads:

“The San Francisco Public Library system is dedicated to free and equal access to information, knowledge, independent learning and the joys of reading for our diverse community.”

Additionally, Monardo said overdue fines can create conflicts with the library staff, take up staff time, and don’t guarantee checked out materials will consistently come back.

Monardo said there could be a number of reasons why patrons are unable to return library materials on time:

“Incurring overdue fines does always mean a disregard for library materials, or lack of respect, or responsibility. Disabilities, unemployment, housing insecurity and social prejudices can all impact a person’s ability to return materials on time.”

Branches in neighborhoods that have a higher household income have fewer patrons blocked than branches in lower-income neighborhoods, said Monardo:

“Even though San Franciscans face overdue fines at similar rates, cardholders in lower-income areas are much more likely to lose their access to the library.”

That was true for the Bayview branch, which has 11 percent of its cardholders blocked because of overdue fines.

Portola Branch Manager Nicole Termini Germain spoke during public comment in favor of The City’s libraries going fine-free:

“As a page for 10 years, the only thing I hated doing the most was charging people fines. So, I say bravo. Let’s do it.”

Commissioner Lee said he was struggling to support the idea of getting rid of overdue fines and that the library was not necessarily blocked for patrons who owe fines, because they can still enter and use the library.

The proposal has support from Mayor London Breed and Acting City Librarian Michael Lambert.

Contra Costa and San Mateo counties have already gone fine-free at their library branches.

Lambert said before introducing the presentation and proposal:

“This proposal holds great promise to address equity and positively reshape our patrons experience borrowing materials from our libraries.”

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