More than 5,000 tools are available at the Berkeley Tool Lending Library. Credit: Berkeley Public Library

Berkeley Public Library will become fully fine-free on Oct. 3, when it stops charging late fees for borrowed tools.

The Board of Library Trustees voted unanimously Wednesday to end fines for overdue items returned to the Tool Lending Library collection and purge all on-the-book fines in an effort to increase accessibility. Berkeley Public Library ended fines for teen and adult books in 2018. It has not charged fees for children’s materials in decades. 

“Libraries are about providing public access to resources,” said Tess Mayer, the city’s director of library services. “We wanted to take this opportunity to eliminate a barrier to access, and make it easier for people in Berkeley to check out these tools.”

The Tool Lending Library, established in 1979, now holds over 1,000 different types of tools available to all cardholders age 18 and up.

The Tool Lending Library moved into the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch in 2013. Credit: Berkeley Public Library

Because fines are not a major source of income for the library (98% of the library’s 2022 budget comes from a citywide property tax), library officials say they expect the decision to stop charging fines for the tool library to have a “minimal” financial impact. 

But don’t expect to be able to walk away with a hedge shear or drain snake without any consequences. Patrons with overdue tools — some of which cost thousands of dollars — will be blocked from checking out more items until overdue items are returned. That’s the same disincentive policy the library has in place for the rest of its materials.  

In the coming months, the library will closely monitor return statistics to see whether people are being more casual about returning tools on time, but the library’s circulation manager, Jay Dickinson, is optimistic.

“I don’t anticipate [that] we’re going to see a lot of things walk away from us,” he said. 

Patrons check out tools from the Tool Lending Library. Credit: Berkeley Public Library

Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who serves on the library board, said she hopes the change will reduce barriers for low-income people who might have avoided the library due to the daunting nature of bureaucracy. 

“Most people do want to follow the rules. … People can function as a society [and] we can share resources and be respectful and kind to each other,” Hahn said. “We need to design our world with that in mind and not with fears and punitive mindsets about who might break the rules.”

When the Tool Lending Library started over four decades ago to serve West and South Berkeley residents, there was just one employee overseeing 500 tools in a portable trailer. The library’s collection, which moved to the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch in 2013, now consists of 5,122 tools available to all cardholders age 18 and up. In 2019, the library became the first in California to offer kitchen appliances on loan. This summer, the library’s most in-demand items have included weed whackers, extension cords and ice cream makers.

Library trustees also voted Wednesday to make it a little easier to show the proof of residence needed to check out tools. Previously, patrons had to show a current lease or rental agreement, tax bill or utility bill. Beginning Oct. 3, the library will also accept a piece of mail postmarked within the past month, a California ID or driver’s license, a voter registration card or a valid vehicle registration.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the requirements needed to get a Berkeley public library card. All California residents are eligible.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...