Vicki Stevenson dreaded making collection calls on Monday nights when she was a librarian at the Rideau Lakes Public Library. “I would see families stop using the library over $1.75 in fines,” she says. In 2014, just before she took over as the library’s CEO, her library system eliminated most of its fines — and it hasn’t looked back. “It’s a punitive approach that we’ve put in the past, and it’s a huge relief,” she says. “There’s that mentality that you teach responsibility, but let’s face it: there’s people who struggle.”
Across Ontario and the rest of the country, a growing number of major libraries have been following suit. In mid-October, the Ottawa Public Library board approved a materials-recovery model that eliminated fines for overdue books; last week, the Toronto Public Library board approved a budget that will phase out children’s fines next year and adults’ fines by 2022. London has considered the idea. And, over the summer, Brampton, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, and Vaughan all got rid of fines in one form or another. “I do think it’s because of the pandemic,” says Erika Heesen, president of the Ontario Public Library Association. “We’re seeing huge numbers of people in our community under financial pressure in a way they hadn’t been before.”
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The idea that library fines create barriers to access for marginalized and low-income people is behind these decisions to nix fees: it’s better to encourage patrons to return borrowed materials, advocates say. A significant portion of outstanding fines comes via harmless infractions (you forgot to bring the book or couldn’t make it for a couple of days); another large chunk in many libraries, including Ottawa’s, is owed by children. So public-library systems, such as Ottawa’s, are adopting models that focus on getting books back and levy replacement fees only once a certain period of time has passed; even then, if the material is eventually returned, fees are waived.
In Ottawa, going fine-free was a long time coming, according to Danielle McDonald, CEO of the Ottawa Public Library. She had wanted to see it happen, she says, “the entire [decade] I’ve been at the Ottawa Public Library.” To support the move, library and municipal staff brought forward research: more than half of all accounts with outstanding debts were located in low-income neighbourhoods; 43 per cent of library users with accounts in collections (meaning they owe more than $50) were identified as minorities; 34 per cent of all accounts with fines were held by children; and there were 3,500 children whose accounts had been sent to collections, rendering the library inaccessible to them. “People with low incomes avoid checking out materials to prevent fines,” reads staff research. “Social-economically disadvantaged areas have significantly lower circulation than wealthier areas.”
As such, libraries risks becoming the domain of the affluent, and many librarians see this as an immediate and serious problem. “We can talk as a board all we want about addressing racial and income inequality,” said OPL board chair Matthew Luloff just before the board voted to approve the fine-free measure on October 13. “Or we can actually address racial and income inequality.”
In library sciences, the idea of eliminating library fines has drawn support as far back as the 1980s. But even though problems with fines were obvious — many working librarians have come to resent collecting them — talk of eliminating them altogether was, as Daniel Sifton of the Cariboo Regional District Library put it in 2009, “the last taboo” for public libraries advancing progressive policies. “The shushing librarian becomes an enforcer,” he wrote. “A new taxman or bad cop to be feared.”
Even minuscule barriers are still barriers in a civic institution where universal access is paramount. “It doesn’t matter if it’s just a dollar,” said McDonald. “It doesn't get us where we need to go.” The OPL, like many other library systems, also sees fines as an unreliable and inefficient revenue source, as well as a marginal one — even if all fines were collected, they would make up less than 2 per cent of the OPL’s annual budget of $50 million or so — and relying on them is "fundamentally at odds with the overall mission of public libraries.”
The current trend doesn’t mark the first time a library system in Ontario has attempted to go fine-free. In 2012, for example, Windsor began a fine-elimination experiment, making it the first major urban library in the province to do so. Not even two years later, though, it abandoned the effort. “We want our materials returned,” a final staff report at the time concluded. “And there is a belief substantiated by customer feedback that small fines are the best way to enforce return of materials in a timely manner.”
However, many libraries have found that, while they do run across a few cases of theft and occasionally need to go to collections, there’s no basis for the fear that countless books will never be returned. The issues Stevenson deals with — one nostalgic patron, for example, repeatedly checked out a 1990s haircut book and neglected to hand it in on time — can be dealt with more humanely. (The library just let it go.)
“I’m not saying there isn’t room to be firm — there is,” says Stevenson. “But, in general, the whole process works more smoothly on good intentions.”
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.