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Austin makes library cards free to people outside the city

A person with a back back walks down an aisle past rows of bookshelves.
Sheryl Wong for KUT
The change will impact an estimated 200,000 residents living in the Austin area.

People who live in unincorporated areas outside the city no longer have to pay $120 for an Austin public library card starting March 11.

In December, Austin City Council voted to remove the fees after the Library Commission recommended the change. In their recommendation, commissioners said Austin Public Library is committed to equity, which includes removing barriers that prevent access to the library’s resources and services.

That also means removing fees — another expense for families on top of housing costs and inflation on goods like food and gas.

The change became official on Thursday with another vote from the City Council to change the library's fee and fine rules.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who helped champion the measure, said many people have been pushed outside the city because of rising costs, making them ineligible for a free library card.

“If we truly want to extend services and benefits to those who have been marginalized, underserved … those who have been displaced out of the city,” Fuentes said, “and are having to live in the ETJ [extraterritorial jurisdiction] because they can no longer afford to live in the city, those are the individuals we had in mind with this expansion.”

The ETJ is unincorporated land within 5 miles of Austin’s boundaries not within the city limits of another city. Austin’s ETJ extends into four counties: Travis, Williamson, Hays and Bastrop. Zoom in on your address using this city map to see if you are in the Austin ETJ.

The change means an estimated 200,000 residents living in the areas outside Austin will have full access to the library’s many programs, services and materials free of charge.

“Right now our libraries truly serve as everything,” Fuentes said. “They are the community hubs. … It is where people go for shelter. They serve as a warming center, or place to go for telemedicine, or you can get trained on how to use the internet. There are just so many programs and services.”

In 2017, the city began to offer all Austin ISD students a free library card regardless of where they lived. In 2021, that program was expanded to students enrolled in any school in Travis County. But Fuentes said she kept hearing about the need from adults who wanted to access resources.

Fuentes also said expanding access to library cards would help more people get access to Austin’s enhanced library card program. An enhanced library card can be used as a form of ID, which can be helpful for people experiencing homelessness or migrants who wouldn't otherwise be able to obtain an ID.

But to be eligible for an enhanced library card, the person must have a traditional one, she said.

Fuentes' resolution received support from several other council members.

Council Member José Velásquez said access to the library and its support services and programming is essential.

"Every Austin resident — regardless of where they live — should receive equal access to library resources," he said.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison shared similar sentiments, saying, "Our public libraries should always be the universally accessible hub for knowledge, and this initiative aligns with the vision of equitable distribution of informational tools and resources for all of our learners — not just the ones who live within city limits."

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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