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San Francisco Public Library Eliminates All Overdue Fines

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Late fees got you down? The SFPL just wiped all our slates clean.  (Wilson Vitorino)

Readers, rejoice! Starting today, the San Francisco Public Library has eliminated overdue fines for all library patrons.

If you have existing overdue fines (guilty as charged), these are now cleared. And moving forward, any overdue materials eligible for renewal will be automatically renewed for you (up to three times, per library policy).

According to the SFPL’s announcement, “the fine free movement has taken on momentum across the nation.” Berkeley Public Library and San Diego Public Library eliminated overdue fines for all patrons in 2018, and Contra Costa County Library, San Mateo County Library and Marin County Library followed suit earlier this year. The SFPL is actually expanding on an existing policy, adopted in 1974, that eliminated fines for children and teen accounts.

A study undertaken by the SFPL and the San Francisco Financial Justice Project of the Treasurer’s Office, published in January 2019, found that “overdue fines restrict access and exacerbate inequality by disproportionately affecting low-income and racial-minority communities, create conflict between patrons and the library, require an inefficient use of staff time, and do not consistently ensure borrowed materials end up back on library shelves.”

In short, overdue fines hindered the library’s ability to serve those who would benefit most from it, contradicting the SFPL’s mission of providing its patrons free and equal access to information.


Studying their own numbers and fine elimination programs at nine other libraries across the country, the SFPL and treasurer’s office determined that “removing overdue fines from the SFPL would generate benefits at all levels of the library ecosystem.”

Previously, overdue items accrued fines of $0.10 a day, maxing out at $5 for a single item. At 60 days past due, the items entered “billed status” (essentially, pay for the replacement of this item or find a suitable replacement yourself). The library blocked accounts with a billed item and those owing $10 or more.

Anecdotal evidence within the report shows overdue fines created negative relationships between the library and its patrons. “When I owe money to the library, I do not feel comfortable using the resources of the library,” said one Park Branch patron. “It creates a sense of un-belonging.”

For those fretting over lost income: In the 2017–2018 fiscal year, overdue fine collections amounted to just 0.2 percent of the SFPL’s total operating budget. In contrast, library employees spend 1,155–3,464 hours a year collecting fines, which adds up to $64,000–$191,000 in staff capacity. That’s time and money, the SFPL reasons, that could be better spent on services directly benefitting its patrons.

The library will still issue billed item fees for materials lost, damaged or unreturned 30 days past their due date. You can’t just borrow a book and never return it.

But in the meantime, we’re all footloose and fine free.

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