On Jan. 4 the Santa Maria City Council voted 3-2 to reject a proposal set forth by the library board of trustees to pilot a Library Fine Amnesty Month.

This pilot program would not only have provided relief to some of the 6,000 library cardholders who are currently blocked from accessing library services, but it would have provided evidence of whether or not it would be feasible to do away with fines completely, as so many other library systems across the country have done.

The library board of trustees is in agreement that:

1) Overdue fines, rather than bringing in significant revenue for the library, actually become an unnecessary expense in manpower to manage the paperwork and time involved, making the returns minimal.

2) As overdue fines accrue daily, once they reach the threshold of $10 and patrons are blocked from using the library, a double barrier of debt and accessibility is created.

3) A Library Fine Amnesty Month during January would be a pilot program to see how many materials would be returned and fees waived; and how many patrons would return to the library.

4) The Santa Maria community would benefit from the elimination of library fines, following the steps taken to do so by the largest public library systems in the country, including the ones in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles. Santa Maria is the only library in the Black Gold Cooperative Library System that still has an overdue fine policy in place.

A study by CNN in October of 2021 of major cities that had eliminated library fines determined that the main reason they cite for eliminating fines is "equitable access".

Nearly every library that has done away with fines claimed that residents in low-income areas were disproportionately blocked to access library services. They also found that children under the age of 14 were impacted by the inability to access educational programs and resources.

Chicago’s public library system eliminated fines in 2019, and within 3 weeks, hundreds of overdue books were returned, and there was also an increase in library card renewals. The same day that New York dropped all fines, they saw the second-highest number of online library card sign-ups that year.

It all comes down to what Councilwoman Soto stated at the meeting, “Ultimately, this is an equity issue … .” Libraries are meant to be accessible to everyone, they are not meant to be exclusive and punitive. Using fines (and increasing them) to demonstrate responsibility has no place in this environment.

They only increase the barriers to equity and access. Perhaps the City Council could model responsibility by upholding their oath to represent the community and provide equitable access to city services, including the public library. In the words of Andy Woodworth, a New Jersey librarian, “The public library is a community service and a common good, and one that should always seek ways to increase access so that everyone can participate.”

I hope that the City Council will revisit this issue in the near future and see that elimination of library fines is not only feasible, but the best method of increasing the number of patrons that are served by our beautiful library and its dedicated Librarian Mary Housel and all the staff.

Helen Galván is the President of the Santa Maria Public Library Board of Trustees.

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