Berkeley PL Launches Cards for Patrons Without Fixed Address

On December 1, 2018, Berkeley Public Library (BPL), CA, rolled out its new Easy Access Cards, designed for library customers without a fixed address. These include patrons who are experiencing homelessness, lack current documentation, are in transition between addresses, or are in the foster care system.

Berkeley Public Library cardOn December 1, 2018, Berkeley Public Library (BPL), CA, rolled out its new Easy Access Cards, designed for library customers without a fixed address. These include patrons who are experiencing homelessness, lack current documentation, are in transition between addresses, or are in the foster care system. Easy Access cardholders may check out three books or other materials at a time, put holds on three items, use library desktop computers, or check out laptops for use in the library at any of BPL’s locations.

The Easy Access cards replace two other types of BPL library cards for patrons without fixed addresses: a temporary card, which gave applicants 45 days to provide proof of address, and a shelter card, which required a letter from the shelter where the cardholder was staying. Those cards were automatically rolled into BPL’s new Easy Access cards.

COMMITTING TO EQUITY

As of last December, more than 140 public libraries across the United States had signed the Urban Libraries Council’s (ULC) Statement on Race and Social Equity, committing their organizations to help build a more equitable society. BPL was among them, and acting director of library services Elliot Warren was looking for ways that the library could do its part to remove barriers to service.

At the same time, Berkeley was moving forward with a citywide strategic plan. The library had chosen several of the city’s long-term priorities to focus on in the next year, including championing and demonstrating social and racial equity. “Our staff has been doing a lot of work trying to identify how, in the next six to nine months, we can implement practices, policies, and services that satisfy that citywide long-term goal,” said Warren.

One solution was to go fine-free for adult, teen, and children’s cards, which BPL did in July, as well as implementing automatic renewal. This includes materials circulated through the LINK+ Union Catalog, a borrowing consortium of 59 libraries in California and Nevada, and everything except laptops and the tools borrowed from BPL’s Tool Lending Library.

“As part of addressing the ULC statement, explained Warren, “We did some analysis that showed very disparate patterns in our different zip codes. The zip codes where wealthy people tend to live showed very few blocked patrons, whereas the communities that are lower income showed much higher rates of patrons being suspended because their fines were over ten dollars…. It seemed extremely unfair."

For years, staff had been hearing from people who said that they didn’t let their children check out more than one book at a time because of potential fines. The library’s analysis was the final argument necessary to move away from fines, and Warren says in the past half year physical circulation is up five to ten percent. “That's not a trend people are seeing in the country as a whole,” he noted. “We do believe that [going fine-free] is drawing more people back."

REDUCING FRICTION

Another area for improvement, they decided, would be to reduce barriers for people who could not get full-access cards. Berkeley, a city of about 120,000 people, has a homeless population of at least 1,000, many of whom use the library regularly. A number of them held temporary or shelter cards, but even applying for those can be a source of friction for some patrons.

“The shelter card basically required people to get a signed letter from the shelter they're staying at, and most of our homeless people aren't sheltered,” Warren told LJ. “Even if they are, very few people used it because…it was…patronizing to expect an institution to vouch for a person."

BPL looked at several libraries in the area that provided similar plans, such as San Francisco Public Library’s Welcome cards, or the accommodations San Mateo County Libraries offer for homeless card applicants. Then, said Warren, he consulted with library leadership, staff, and even BPL’s Joint Labor-Management Committee, which proposed that the card include the capacity for users to place holds and pick up materials at the branch of their choice, as homeless patrons might not be able to move between locations easily. BPL’s Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) supported the card as well.

Simultaneously, the library consolidated and simplified its circulation policy, which hadn’t previously covered cards. BPL rewrote it as a straightforward two-page document that lays out card access rules, fine and renewal practices, book fees, and cards for minors.

At press time, BPL had 579 active Easy Access cards. Since instituting them, said Warren, he’s received kudos from patrons, the community, and staff. Ease of computer use in particular is a hit; without a library card, anyone wishing to use library computers would have to return to the reference desk every hour for a new code. Patrons who don’t have access to computers at home can now take the time they need to research or fill out job and benefit applications. Warren has seen in-house laptop use go up ten times since BPL’s Central Library instituted laptop vending machines, and has recently reconfigured the space to devote less room to desktop computers and more to comfortable seating.

Applicants still need to provide some form of photo identification, but those rules have relaxed as well. Prior to launching the Easy Access Card, BPL required a California ID or passport. Now, users can present a California ID or driver’s license; a government picture ID (including a passport, military ID, green card, or out of state ID); a student (high school or college) ID; or another form of credible picture ID, including bank cards, transit cards, or Costco cards. Easy Access Cards must be renewed yearly (full access cards are good for four years). Visitors from out of town can still get a temporary pass.

Some community members have expressed trepidation about the requirement, noting that people without fixed addresses often don’t have the needed ID, or are unable to get it. Although there are public agencies that can help them get IDs, “Many individuals don’t have the capacity to obtain them or they may refuse to for various privacy reasons,” David Stegman, executive director of the Dorothy Day House, which runs several shelters in Berkeley, told Berkeleyside. Warren says the photo requirement isn’t negotiable, although he also notes that there is some discretion left to the library’s circulation manager.

Still by all accounts, this is a step forward in BPL’s mission to support both its pledges through the ULC statement and the library’s strategic plan.

“We brainstormed and came up with something we believe provides good balance between easy access and responsible oversight of library material,” said Warren. “I’ve had circ staff who come to me and say, ‘This is great—it really feels good to be able to provide people access.’”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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