Library says goodbye to traditional late fees

Posted: July 20th, 2018 | Arts & Entertainment, Featured, Libraries, News | No Comments

By Karen E. Reilly

Summer has arrived at the Mission Valley Branch Library, and we are excited that the sun is shining down on our new solar panels! The city of San Diego completed the installation last month, and the panels — covering more than two-thirds of our parking lot — are generating 80 percent of the power needed to run the building. All our parking spaces are open again and, as a bonus, they’re shaded!

On Sunday, July 1, the San Diego Public Library made a significant change to how it operates — we eliminated daily fees for overdue materials. Before making this change, the library worked with other departments within the city of San Diego to research the issue of overdue fees. The findings showed that there were two main issues: that fees were costly to the library to collect, and that they disproportionately impacted low-income areas.

(Courtesy City of San Diego)

The analysis showed that at the city receives an average of $763,000 per year in fines, but the Library Department spends an estimated $1 million in staff time collecting fines and updating accounts (and as a manager, I can attest to how time-consuming handling money and preparing bank deposits is). When staff researched the accounts, 22 percent of library card holders, or approximately 174,000 accounts, were frozen due to fines. This happens when fines reach $10. Unsurprisingly, frozen accounts were concentrated at libraries that serve lowest income areas in San Diego — the places where patrons are least able to afford to pay such fees. Furthermore, multiple studies by Susan Neuman, a childhood and literacy education researcher at New York University who served as the assistant education secretary under George W. Bush, have shown that children in low-income households are statistically less likely to have access to books at home, due in part to the lack of stores selling books for children in these neighborhoods. As a result, we realized that our fine policy was disproportionately affecting the people who most needed the library’s resources.

While the library has eliminated new overdue fines, it has not eliminated the consequences for failing to return something. Once an item is 30 days overdue — or if it is returned to the library, but has been damaged beyond repair — you will be charged the full cost of the item, as well as a $10 processing fee. You will also be barred from checking out any additional items. You will then have another 30 days to either return the item, or pay the bill. If you do not settle the account within that additional 30 days, your account will be referred to the City Treasurer, who will assess additional fees and begin collection proceedings — and at that point, it’s too late to return the item. You will have to pay for the item.

Now, many of us have neglected to return something without noticing (in my house, books tend to disappear between my kids’ beds and their bedroom walls). How can you make sure that you aren’t charged for a book you thought you returned? Make sure the email and mail addresses on your library account are up to date. We will send email notices when items are seven and 14 days overdue, and a paper invoice at 30 days. And to make doubly sure, you can sign up for Library Elf, at This is a free service that allows you to register your library account, as well as your email and cellphone number, and then Library Elf will send you daily reminders by email and text when items are due or overdue. Finally, think about installing our app, SDPL to Go. Then you can check your library account right on your phone.

Don’t forget, the Summer Reading Program ends Aug. 1, so get reading!

—Karen E. Reilly is branch manager of the Mission Valley Library. Reach her at

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