Op-Ed: San Jose’s Library Fine Amnesty Policy Highlights the Importance of Civic Engagement

San Jose boasts 28 different boards, commissions and committees on which residents can volunteer to serve. The commissions may advise City Council on various city services and issues ranging from parks and recreation to the airport and historic landmarks or provide oversight on bonds and parcel taxes.

The Library and Early Education Commission (LEEC) serves a dual purpose, offering oversight for bonds and parcel taxes while also serving a traditional advocacy role.

The LEEC advocates for high quality, impactful and innovative library and early education services that serve as a foundation for a vibrant and diverse city. It provides a venue for public discussion of services and resources that support and promote early education and world-class libraries. As part of this process, the commission sends a letter to City Council every spring to highlight the priorities of the San Jose Public Library (SJPL) system and ask for its support in the form of funding in the annual budget.

This year the commission felt strongly that supporting SJPL’s goal to remove late fines for youth materials aligned with San Jose’s educational priorities and asked for its inclusion in the annual budget. Although arguments were made that library fines disproportionately affect youth in lower-income communities in San Jose and prevent SJPL from partnering with public schools to distribute library cards, funding for fine removal was not included in the city’s initial budget plan.

Undeterred, commissioners chose to organize and work together for inclusion of youth library fine elimination in the final budget proposal. They set up meetings with their city counci lmembers to explain why it would make a difference to young people and their families in San Jose.

Research helped make a compelling case to the council members. A comprehensive study by Colorado State Library found little evidence that fines increase the rate of return of library materials, but much greater evidence that they pose a significant barrier to library access and learning for youth. It recommended their removal in public libraries to increase library usage and make them more welcoming to children and families.

In addition, eliminating fines on youth library materials has quickly become a best practice in big-city libraries around the country, including in San Francisco, Oakland, Denver and the District of Columbia, as well as in smaller library systems, including those in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The services offered by the SJPL provide tremendous educational value to the residents that go well beyond traditional book borrowing. Library cards provide free access to services such as Hoopla, Safari, and Lynda.com that provide digital versions of educational books, comics, training videos and online courses.

Removing fines on youth materials not only expands access to these valuable services but also reinforces the library’s message that it is a welcoming place to come and learn.

After speaking with commissioners, council members Don Rocha and Chappie Jones submitted budget documents in support of the elimination of fines. The result was inclusion of a one-year pilot program eliminating the fines in Mayor Sam Liccardo’s June budget message. Commissioners Hilary Thorsen, Kristin Rivers, José Magaña, Michael Melillo, Janice Allen and Thaddeus Aid came to the public hearing to speak in support of the proposal and were pleased to learn of the budget’s unanimous approval.

During the pilot program, the library will measure increases in library cards issued, circulation, and other key indicators to determine if the program was a success. There will also be a marketing campaign to build awareness around the removal of fines aligned with the beginning of the upcoming school year.

The experience of the Library and Early Education Commission demonstrates that engagement with local government can effect change and lead to improvements that benefit the entire city.

At a time when many people are looking for more ways to be involved, serving on a commission provides a means of engaging with fellow citizens and government staff and officials. San Jose is currently looking for dedicated citizens eager to participate in their local government to fill vacancies on a variety of commissions. Interested parties should click here and apply online.

Hilary Thorsen is a librarian at Stanford University and serves on the city of San Jose’s Library and Early Education Commission. Michael Melillo is a data scientist at Apple, a San Jose Unified School District trustee and also serves on the LEEC. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].


  1. Talk about age discrimination. And a lovely way to teach the government is for freebies and that books have no value.

  2. Next, parking meter and building code violation amnesty, followed by traffic tickets and criminal mischief.

    Why not just give all library books away to anyone who wants one? Keep it, it’s yours. What happens when books are no longer available to those that just want to borrow one for a week? Does the city have a replacement program and budget in place to replace missing resources?

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