Long overdue: Oakland public libraries go 'fine free,' part of a growing social justice movement

So, your copy of "Handmaid's Tale" is overdue and the Lion King DVD you borrowed from the library is three weeks late.

Not to worry. You're no longer a library scofflaw.

As of July 1, the Oakland Public Library joins a growing global movement that advocates say is long overdue: Ending late fee fines, they say, is a matter of social justice. 

"Fines serve as economic barriers that impedes access to library materials and services for the financially disadvantaged people within our communities, particularly minors," according to Andy Woodworth, who started the website, End Library Fines. "In addition, it creates conflict points between staff and the community, acts as a poison to public relations, and utilizes valuable staff time applying, collecting and managing what can only be described as a regressive tax." He estimates there are 500 libraries that are either completely "fine free" or partially "fine free" across the world. 

Map: Fine-free libraries across the globe

It's not as if library users in Oakland will be completely off the hook. Borrowers will be charged to replace the book or movie if they are more than 30 days late, explained Mathew Berson. If a person ends up returning that item eventually, he said the fee will be waived. There will still be fees for overdue tools. 

Under the old system, late fees ranged from 25 cents to $1 per day. If someone racked up $50 or more in fines, they could not borrow additional materials until the amount was paid down to less than $50. In 2018, the library brought in $77,600 in late fees in the last fiscal year, but Oakland librarians said it cost the library $200,000 to process the fines.

"There's a lot more staff time that it takes to process the amount we collected," Berson said.

Thirty percent of Oakland school libraries closed

Librarians in other cities who have tried this – including St. Paul; Minn., Denver, Baltimore, Austin, Iowa City, the city of Berkeley, as well as San Mateo, Alameda, Marin and Contra Costa counties – have found that return rates stay about the same and circulation actually goes up.

When Oakland piloted the idea with youth, the number child cardholders increased by 17 percent and there was no impact on the rate of unreturned items, a study found.

Berson added that librarians aren't too worried about the potential for losing money. In June 2018, 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, he noted. 

Several people on social media commented that they didn't like  the idea, saying that people who borrow books should be responsible for returning them by deadline, no matter what their socioeconomic status. 

But others have a lot of support for going "fine free." 

"I love it," said Dirk Tillotson of Oakland, founder and executive director of Great School Choices, a nonprofit advocating for quality and equity in schools. "So many families rely on libraries and then get locked out when they have fines. When you get on a list, you don't go back."

The "fine free" phenomenon has been talked about in the library world since 1999, according to published papers and news articles. But the actual trend of at least reducing fees didn't start taking off until about 2016, when the San Jose Public Library became one of the early adopters of nixing late fees for children. (Late fees for adults are still .25 cents a day). 

In a New York Times article that year, Jill Bourne, the director of libraries, said in some immigrant neighborhoods "there is a fear of government interaction. As soon as people hear there is the potential for being penalized by the government, they want to stay away from that service."

And she said that in poor neighborhoods, nearly a third of cardholders were barred from borrowing or using library computers. Half of the children and teenagers with library cards in San Jose owed fines at the time. 

In Oakland, a 2018 Equity Indicators Report found that fines disproportionately impact communities of color, who are the most likely to be living below the federal poverty level, to be homeless and to lack high-speed internet access. 

Supporters say that the idea is so simple and so significant.

In an interview with KARE Channel 11 last year, Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., said that overdue books "don't make people bring books back, they make people stay away from the library." 

Supervisor Katie Rice, who approved along with her colleagues on Tuesday to eliminate fines in Marin County libraries, said the act of paying late fines also had a sense of shame attached to it.

Tillotson said he hopes this new fine-free era will entice people of all stripes to use and return to the  library.

"They're a critical resource, especially low-income families," he said. "I hope the word gets out."