Photo by Stewart Butterfield via Flickr

The city’s library director said Wednesday she is proposing the elimination of fines for overdue library books in an effort to restore access to literacy resources in low-income communities, where as many as 57 percent of cardholders have been barred from checking out books because of outstanding bills.

The problem with fines doesn’t end with equity issues.

The San Diego Public Library spends more than $1 million each year in staff time and other costs to collect about $700,000 in late fees. And the fines are ineffective in changing the behavior of those who have failed to return the 296,000 books, DVDs and other library items currently overdue — otherwise there would be no overdue items, Library Director Misty Jones told the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee.

“The ultimate goal is for us to eliminate barriers to usage for all patrons,” she said. “Fines create an unnecessary barrier to access.”

Jones said that’s why she has proposed a new business model that would eliminate overdue fees.

Currently when a library cardholder’s bill for fines reaches $10, he or she is unable to check out any new books until paying enough of the bill so that it falls below $10. One a bill reaches $50, the person is referred to the city treasurer’s office and must pay the entire amount before checking out more books.

Under the new model, books would be automatically renewed five times. The library would send the cardholder a notice after the book is 30 days past due informing him or her that the book must be paid for or returned. After 30 additional days, the debt would be forwarded to the city treasurer, Jones said.

The library has 750,000 cardholders and 17 percent are barred from checking out books due to fines, Jones said.

The data shows a clear trend: libraries in the poorer communities, like Logan Heights and Mountain View, have the highest percentage of patrons who are barred from checking out books, while those in wealthier communities had the lowest number, including Rancho Penasquitos, Scripps Ranch and Carmel Valley.

The reason is that some families must make a decision between paying their library bills or putting food on the table — the same people who need library services the most, Jones said.

More than 20 percent of adults in the San Diego region lack basic literacy skills and 60 percent of children in the city’s economically disadvantaged areas do not meet English language arts standards, according to federal education data cited by the library director.

Committee members said they were struck by the data and generally voiced support for Jones’ proposal. She will present the matter to the full council in April as part of an annual review of the library’s fee-collecting.

“I think this is a fantastic model,” Councilman Chris Cate said.

The committee also voted unanimously to study whether the city could forgive the debt of some of the 128,000 patrons who have returned overdue items but are still barred from checking out new materials.

A similar system has been implemented at the Los Angeles County Public Library.

—City News Service