Oakland Public Library to Get Rid of Fines and Late Fees

A view from the steps of the Main Branch of the Oakland Public Library. (Courtesy of Christopher Seaman/@sqrlly on Instagram)

Oakland residents who love to read but don't always finish their books on time can breathe a little sigh of relief.

Starting July 1, the Oakland Public Library will stop fining people for overdue materials, with the exception of tools checked out from the Tool Lending Library (apparently Tool Time is still strictly enforced). The City Council approved the move late last month.

"It's a barrier that's unnecessary," said library director Jamie Turbak. "There's no impact to the rate of returned items when you eliminate overdue fines, so charging people fines more likely prevents them from using the library at all."

Under the old system, late fees ranged from 25 cents to $1 per day. If someone accrued $50 or more in fines, they could not borrow additional materials until the amount was paid down to less than $50. The library brought in $77,600 in late fees in the last fiscal year, but Turbak said it cost the library twice that to process the fines.

According to Turbak, a city analysis found that adults living in predominantly nonwhite ZIP codes were 5% more likely to have their account blocked due to fines, 26% more likely to owe fines and 45% less likely to use their library cards, even though many more of them had library cards.

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The disproportionate impact of fines on low-income communities and communities of color has made the elimination of fines a national social justice trend. In the Bay Area, San Mateo and Contra Costa counties as well as the city of Berkeley have already gone fine-free, and a similar proposal in San Francisco is awaiting approval from city leaders.

"The city of Oakland has been doing tremendous work around looking at equity and equity indicators and disparities among populations in terms of government services," Turbak said, noting that getting rid of fines was a harder sell when the city was facing tough budget decisions. "By the time we brought this before the City Council, everyone was on board and really saw the obvious need to try to create a more level playing field for people across the city."

Last year, Oakland voters passed Measure D, a $75 increase to the city's library parcel tax, which is expected to bring in $10 million a year, and made it possible for the library to significantly extend its operating hours earlier this year.

The library has also recently rolled out automatic renewals and abolished its previous library card age limit of 5 years old, paving the way for people to sign up for library cards from birth.

"I'm hoping to see a big uptick in the number of people who get library cards to begin with, and hopefully a large number of people who have stopped using the library return to the library," Turbak said.

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