Julie Ruble / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The model embraced by most public libraries for retrieving borrowed materials has historically been a simple one: forget to return the item, you pay the price.

The San Diego Public Library became part of a group of trailblazers when it abandoned this system in 2018, joining the less than 10 percent of American libraries around that time that’d done away with daily overdue fees, according to the Library Journal.

But the new policy, advertised on signs across the downtown branch that read, “Wave goodbye to overdue fees,” is not as straightforward as it sounds. Local public school teacher Julie Ruble, who’s untimely book return resulted in a $1,426 debt to the city of San Diego, can attest.

“This was just so much money and I didn’t think there were fines,” she said, “but it turns out the no-fines policy is misnamed.”

Ruble knows she messed up when she failed to return 40 books on ancient civilizations, checked out from the library’s Point Loma branch for her sixth-grade class at High Tech Middle Media Arts, in late 2019. She says the library’s multiple late notices — sent to her email — came and went undetected.

“I have ADHD and I struggle with executive functioning at the best of times, but this was definitely the worst of times for me,” Ruble said, adding that she was under immense emotional stress because her dog started experiencing seizures at the time. “So I kept the books late accidentally.”

When she was billed a $1,300 “replacement fee” for the materials in early 2020, Ruble started making calls to library staff to try and sort something out. But by the time she got in contact with the staff and was prepared to return the books, it was mid-March.

We all know what happened in March 2020.

Point Loma Branch Library
Point Loma Branch Library / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Library Director Misty Jones said no patrons were sent to collections for fees attached to unreturned materials during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ruble’s case had already worked its way to the San Diego treasurer before then, and the fee couldn’t be reversed.

Under the library’s new no-fees policy, patrons no longer accumulate daily overdue fees once an item’s due date has passed. But that’s not to say you can keep materials forever without punishment.

After 30 days overdue, patrons will be invoiced for the cost of replacing an item if it’s still checked out, but that cost can still be waived upon the item’s return. That option expires at 60 days overdue, after which the debt is transferred to the city treasurer and the fine must be paid whether the materials are returned or not.

Ruble said she returned the 40 books she’d checked out as soon as the library’s book drops reopened later that spring, and with debt collection efforts barred during the pandemic she assumed the situation was behind her.

Her relief was replaced with panic this summer when collections picked back up and the library system informed Ruble that she still owed the city treasurer $1,400 for a delinquent library account, even after returning the books.

Once a patron’s debt has been transferred out of the library’s jurisdiction to the treasurer, Jones said, per the city’s municipal code, “it’s out of our hands.” That means there’s no way to waive a replacement fee for materials the library already has back.

Since July 2018, when the no-fine policy went into effect, 7,444 library accounts have been referred to collections — about 3 percent of all active accounts.

The policy was intended to open back up the library to those who’d been deterred by delinquent fines, Jones said, and particularly those in low-income communities without the means to pay overdue fees.

“We had another policy where, once you got to $10, your card was blocked and you couldn’t use it anymore,” Jones said. “$10 could be the difference between getting home, feeding your family or paying your library fine. What are you going to do?”

Before the no-fine policy — which also forgave all library fines accumulated before July 2018, save for those already referred to the treasurer — more than 128,000 library card holders were blocked from checking out materials due to delinquent fines, including more than 13,000 juveniles.

The equity angle was a big part of why the San Diego Public Library ditched its old fees system, but it’s not the full story. A city analysis revealed the library was spending nearly $1 million a year on collecting overdue fees that only amounted to about $675,000 annually.

The San Diego Public Library’s borrowing policy remains among the most liberal in the United States, but that doesn’t help in Ruble’s case. She chose to pay the $1,426 in fines up front this September after finding out that enrolling in the city’s 12-month payment plan could damage her credit.

“This is exactly what a no-fine policy is supposed to fix,” she said. “It’s supposed to help people who struggle, it’s supposed to not be punitive and not cause financial hardship.”

Jones said the replacement fee policy is not about taking patrons’ money.

“If you could check out books and just keep them forever with no incentive to bring them back, a lot of people would bring their stuff back anyways and a lot of people won’t,” Jones said. “That’s where the issue is. You want to have your materials available for everyone in San Diego, and this is taxpayer money.”

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