Rows of books in the reading room of the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Update, July 17: In a complex wrinkle that confused even our city legislators, the Board of Supervisors actually did not vote to eliminate library fees on Tuesday. This, along with more than a dozen other “budget items” was continued to next week’s meeting, at which time a first reading will take place. This is traditional with regard to budget-related items. 

Perplexingly, yesterday’s agenda read “shall these items pass upon first reading?” even though no such reading was scheduled to take place. 

The outcome of this vote is not in doubt. Barring unforeseen lunacy, it will pass upon first reading on July 23. A second reading will take place on July 30, prior to the Charter-mandated end-of-month deadline for budget-related items.

Original story, July 16: It’s a day of forgiveness for San Franciscans: The Board of Supervisors this afternoon voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that would eliminate late fees for all overdue public library materials, and ameliorate all outstanding fines. Once the mayor signs this into law — which she has indicated she will do — San Francisco will join more than 50 jurisdictions across the country in which libraries are late-fine-free, including Berkeley, Salt Lake City and Nashville.

This means that the more than 17,000 local patrons whose accounts were previously blocked due to accumulated overdue fines (which was automatic once a fine of $10 was accrued) will once again be free to check out library materials. And the 157,000 library patrons — some 35 percent of the library’s users — who owe late fees will now be in the clear. Among those owing money, the average tab was $23.

Michelle Jeffers, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Public Library, said she has been looking forward to this decision for a while. 

“We really feel that late fees had been leading to inequity for certain segments of the community,” she said, adding that the fees are incongruous with the overall mission of a public library. “We want to be welcoming and equitable, and we want more people to be able to use the library.”

Jeffers isn’t concerned that the elimination of late fees will lead to later returns or longer wait times for books.

“We’ve been a library for 140 years, and fines haven’t really changed people’s behavior,” she said. “There are a lot of people who return their books on time, and a lot of people who don’t.”

She’s also not worried about the potential loss of revenue. “We do encourage people to support the library through fiscal support, but the revenue we received from overdue fines was just a small part of our budget,” she said, adding that the SFPL is a well-funded library. 

In fact, the $333,000 collected in overdue fines during the last fiscal year was just 0.2 percent of the operating budget.

People stream in and out of the Mission branch at 24th and Bartlett, the third busiest in San Francisco.

The board’s decision was buoyed by “Long Overdue,” a report released by the San Francisco Treasurer in January, which argued that overdue fines disproportionately harm the non-wealthy and non-white.

“While library patrons across the city accrue overdue fines at equal rates,” wrote Treasurer José Cisneros in the report’s introduction, “low-income communities, African-American communities, and communities without advanced degrees are most frequently blocked from accessing the library due to overdue fines.”

The report also notes that late fines are not an effective way of encouraging timely returns. In fact, according to much of the existing research, late fines are more likely to deter people from checking out library materials in the first place. 

“I cannot emphasize strongly enough that many patrons refuse to check out books due to fears about fines,” said one librarian quoted anonymously in the report. “Many lower-income and poorly housed people have expressed extreme anxiety to me about the fines they have racked up. Eliminating fines is a great way to solve these issues.”

Today’s vote marks the official end of pesky late charges. But, unofficially, an interim suspension began in April. The library released an internal memo late in that month temporarily suspending the practices of charging late fees and barring patrons with late fines from checking out library materials, in anticipation of today’s board’s decision.

According to Jeffers, the library will be working out a slightly revised process for returning books now that late fees are a thing of the past. This will include the option of streamlined auto-renews, and other ways of reminding people when items are due. 

She says people will still be responsible for eventually returning their library materials. Thirty days after a final due date, an item will go from overdue to billed status. At that point, the patron will not be able to check out other physical collections from the library until they return or replace the item.

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