Nearly 50,000 people in Long Beach are currently barred from borrowing library books, audiobooks, DVDs and magazines because they owe overdue fines of $20 or more, according to a June 10 city memo from Library Services Director Glenda Williams. The majority of the banned accounts belong to adults, but overdue fines also preclude 6,000 children from checking materials out of city libraries.

The barred accounts are “concentrated in the most economically disadvantaged parts of the city, Central and North Long Beach,” according to Williams’s memo.

The number of barred accounts is nearly as high as the number of active card holders. There were 61,000 active library card holders in the city in 2018, according to an audit of the library system conducted in February.

Nubia Flores, a member of a community activist group called Long Beach Forward, was shocked to learn that so many people faced potential barriers to access the library because they owed money.

“That’s a significant number. To try to remedy this should be an absolute top priority,” Flores said. “Libraries are essential to families.”

Even before the pandemic, public libraries played a crucial support role in Long Beach communities.

Flores works directly with parents of LBUSD students, and she recalled speaking with parents who said they wouldn’t step foot inside the library with their children because they had overdue fees to pay. If they went inside, and their children wanted to check a book out, they would have to explain to them that they couldn’t.

Storytime events for children in Spanish or Khmer language workshops that were hosted at the Mark Twain Library in Central Long Beach allowed communities to have access to educational programs. When the pandemic shut down in-person visits to the libraries, Flores knew the kind of impact it was going to have on low-income families.

“I did see a lot of families struggle having the libraries shut down,” Flores said. She remembered walking into the library a few days before they shut down in March, and worried that some parents wouldn’t be able to return to the library and return books.

The February audit concluded that some of the services at the libraries did not meet the needs of the city’s racially, socioeconomically and linguistically diverse communities. This included late fees charged for overdue materials that were checked out.

The Library Services Department is working to address some of the issues presented in the audit, including the potential elimination of late fee charges.

Williams, the Library Services director, said she’s onboard with eliminating late fees completely as they would remove barriers for members of the community to continue to use the library without facing penalties.

“If your income is impacted, and you’re looking at paying a fine or paying for putting food on the table or a light bill, guess what, paying for that library fine is going to come at the end of the list,” Williams said.

Long Beach libraries are currently waiving late fees as part of the city’s response to the pandemic. About $300,000 was allocated from federal relief funds included in the Long Beach Recovery Act to waive library fines for one year. Williams said there is enough money to continue waiving fees through 2021.

The City Council will still have to decide if any outstanding late fees will be waived and if late fees will be eliminated entirely moving forward.

Other cities have seen considerable success in eliminating late fees, Williams said. Chicago’s public libraries eliminated late fees in 2019 and saw a 240% increase in the number of books returned, according to data provided in the June 10 memo. Salt Lake City Public Library reported a 16% increase in the number of items borrowed and an increase of 26,000 library cardholders a year after it also eliminated late fees.

Details as to how the elimination of late fees in Long Beach would look like are still being worked out and depend on what the city council decides, Williams said. If approved, no new late fees would be charged, existing fees would be canceled but library users would still be charged for lost or damaged items.

The American Library Association, the world’s oldest library organization, enacted a resolution in 2019 concluding that fines for overdue library materials is discriminatory. The group urged public libraries nationwide to waive outstanding fines.

With other cities already eliminating or reworking late fee charges since 2019, Flores added she was concerned that Long Beach had not yet adopted something similar.

“It is an issue that they are getting to this so late, considering other cities have done this,” she said. “This shouldn’t even be a debate.”