No permanent address? No problem. Berkeley library makes it easier for those without homes to get library cards

The new Easy Access Cards will make it easier for people without homes to work at the computers at the Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Mary Rees

Allexya Peterson comes in to the Berkeley Public Library almost every day. She said she typically uses a library computer to watch YouTube, check Facebook, and listen to her favorite childhood book on tape, The Haunted Mansion.

“It’s what I call, ‘Allexya time,’” she said.

Peterson lives outside and because she doesn’t have a home address she hasn’t been able to get a library card. Instead, to use the computer, she has to go to the Reference Desk for a new numerical code every hour.

But that could change for her. On Dec. 1, all branches of the Berkeley Public Library started to issue Easy Access Cards, which are designed specifically for people who don’t have a fixed address. Those wanting a card will still need a photo ID, but don’t have to prove they have a residence, according to a recent circulation policy update.


Easy Access cardholders will be able to check out three books or other library materials at a time, put holds on three items, use library computers and check out laptops for in-library use, said Elliot Warren, acting director of library services.

On Tuesday morning, the Easy Access Card was news to Peterson, but she thought it would improve her library experience.

“I could get books out,” Peterson said, “and I’d be able to do things without having to go up to the desk every 59 minutes.”

Warren said he did not know how large a demand there would be for Easy Access Cards.

“We see this as a small percentage of library card-holders,” Warren said. “In an ideal world, everybody would be able to prove an address.”

It’s also envisioned as “a stop-gap measure — we want to encourage everyone to get full-access library cards,” Warren said.

Full-access library cards are good for four years and allow holders to take out 75 items at a time, but they require proof of address. Easy Access Cards will be good for a year before renewing, Warren said.


The Library Council, a group of about 25 lead staff, developed the proposals in discussions over the last two to three months, Warren said. The Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) unanimously approved the new card and other proposed changes to the library’s circulation policy on Nov. 14th.

Those changes include two automatic renewals of many library materials, unless there’s a hold. Further, the library is dropping the fees for damaged CD/DVD cases, lost audio book discs, and late Link+ items, which come from other libraries. Berkeley Public Library had already stopped charging daily fines for late return of its own materials.

“Since we stopped doing that,” Warren said, “our circulation has grown.”

There are still consequences for not returning an item within 60 days of its due date. After 60 days, the account will be blocked until the cardholder pays the bill or buys another copy of the lost item, Warren said.

Even though most of the Easy Access cardholders will not have a stable location to keep their checked-out items, “it has not been a particularly concerning thing,” Warren said. “Many of them are just going to use [the cards] for checking out computers and laptops.”

The Easy Access Cards will replace two other card types, a temporary card that gave people 45 days to provide proof of address and a shelter card that required patrons living in shelters to get a letter from the shelter saying they are residing there. Library staff thought the latter seemed “patronizing,” said Warren.


“The Easy Access Card idea uses a universal design approach that removes any value judgment or need for some institutional authority to approve getting a library card and works for many people under quite varied conditions; homelessness, lack of current documentation, people in transition, teens in foster care, and so on, while also limiting the library’s risk because only three items may be checked out at any given time by people with Easy Access Cards,” said Warren.

“This was a very popular change among the staff because it increased access for the homeless people” in the library, said Diane Davenport, president of the Board of Library Trustees. “You can only imagine that if you’re homeless, you’re not going to have computer access.”

Without it, Davenport said, “how do you find free food? How do you know which churches are open at night [as shelter]? How do you keep in touch with family?”

Berkeley Public Library staff prepared for the rollout of the new cards with staff training on Nov. 30.

“Our circulation software has to be updated, in the code and in the application itself,” Warren said, “and we have to update the website.”

David Stegman, executive director of the Dorothy Day House, which runs several shelters in Berkeley, was delighted when he first heard of the Easy Access Cards.

“Wow, that’s a phenomenal thing!” Stegman said. The cards will mean “a lot more access for people.”

“Libraries and senior centers are the main points of access for people living on the streets,” Stegman said. “I know a number of homeless people who go to the Main Library to get out of the rain, use the bathroom, and stay warm. Mostly, it’s a safe place.”

However, Stegman expressed concern in an email that “the photo ID would be a barrier to many homeless individuals,” even though the new policy expands the list of acceptable picture IDs to include things like high school and college IDs, transit cards, and Costco cards.

Several public and non-profit agencies can help homeless people get IDs, but “many individuals don’t have the ‘capacity’ to obtain them or they may ‘refuse’ to for various ‘privacy’ reasons,” Stegman wrote. He also said that it would be rare for people to have any of the other acceptable IDs, too.

“I’m sure that the Library system has good reasons for the photo ID,” said Stegman. “They should absolutely go through with the program and along the way perhaps come up with a way of tracking the number of individuals that see this as a barrier.”

As for letting people know about the new cards, Stegman said the best way is “word of mouth on the street.” He said that agencies like Dorothy Day House can distribute flyers about the Easy Access Cards if the library sends them some. “I’ll talk to our managers at the [shelter] sites,” he said.

Eliminating fines will mean a small drop in revenue, but “a tiny portion of the budget is from fines,” said Davenport. “The budget comes mostly from the taxpayers of Berkeley. We have a public that loves the library and believes in the library. Berkeley citizens voted to tax themselves several million dollars a year” to pay for the library.

The Library Tax is expected to bring in $19 million in the 2019 fiscal year, according to information from the library’s financial manager, Davenport wrote in a follow-up email.