HAYWARD — City libraries soon will offer a new borrowing system that borrows from Netflix, the mail-based, no-late-fee movie rental service.

For a monthly fee, library users will be able to check out a limited number of materials for an unlimited amount of time. The optional system will eliminate due dates and overdue fees, asking for money upfront in return for no worries later. Pricing would begin at $2.99 a month for up to three items out at a time.

"About 20 percent of our library users are blocked from further checkouts because of the fines they have accrued," said acting library director Sean Reinhart, whose idea was approved by the City Council last week.

"These days, a lot of people want to do things on their own time frame. They're busy. Returning materials can be kind of low on their priority list and they end up with fines, and stop coming."

While other libraries around the nation have adopted the other part of the Netflix model — sending materials through the mail — Reinhart said Hayward won't be doing that for now.

"That's a whole other level of logistical problems," he said. "Books are different sizes and weights, and a whole lot heavier than DVDs. Some libraries have tried the mail system and some of them have worked, but a lot have failed."

That difference may mean that the Hayward model will be the first of its kind in the nation. Reinhart could not find a similar system for comparative purposes, and Sari Feldman, president of the national Public Library Association, said she hadn't heard of it before.

"I am very interested and very curious," said Feldman, director of Cuyahoga County libraries, serving the suburbs of Cleveland. "Sean is looking at what makes sense for his customer base, and offering a new convenience that makes the library increasingly attractive. I will circle back to hear how it works."

Reinhart said if a book is checked out on the "Fines-Free" plan for an extended period, and enough other customers request it, the library will purchase a new copy.

But Cal State East Bay head librarian Linda Dobb expressed concern that the open-ended checkout potentially could take research materials away from the public indefinitely.

"What if somebody really needed a particular item, and Hayward Public is one of the few places that has it?" she said. "If somebody absolutely has to have something and it is unique, there have always been ways for a library to recall an item."

Reinhart said the library's reference section is for in-house use only, and they stock very few out-of-print items in the first place.

"We simply do not have the space in our buildings nor the demand from our community to justify storing older, little-used items for very long," he said.

Reinhart said he's looking forward to seeing the results once the program starts, which will be before Christmas.

He said that if only 2 percent of library users opt into the program, it will more than match $94,000 the library took in from late fees last year. And the other 98 percent of users who don't opt to go fines-free will still be putting in money the old-fashioned way.

"I think the results will be eye-opening for libraries around the nation," Reinhart said.

Eric Kurhi covers Hayward. Reach him at 510-293-2473. Read our blog at www.ibabuzz.com/hayword/.