Overdue fines for library materials will soon be a thing of the past throughout the Thompson-Nicola Regional Library (TNRL) system.
At its meeting on March 11, directors of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District voted to eliminate fines, on the recommendation of TNRL head librarian Judy Moore. She said the move to eliminate overdue fines is one that is building up steam provincially, and being adopted by libraries around the world.
“People are less inclined to use the library if there are fines,” she said. “The fines create barriers when it comes to getting new patrons and keeping old ones.”
The purpose, value, and impact of fines are a hot topic for libraries. International studies have shown that fines disproportionately impact children and other vulnerable people, discourage use of libraries, and can result in low-income individuals and families losing access to library resources.
Moore said that when TNRL staff go into Grade 3 classrooms as part of their VIP Library Card campaign, they find multiple students who already have cards but are barred from using the library because of fines. Staff often waive these fines, but miss students who are in other grades, or who choose not to take part in the program because they know they have fines.
”We’ve heard stories about people who don’t use the library because of the fines,” Moore said. “And staff on the front line find it challenging when they have to have that conversation with patrons.”
There are currently 3,943 active cardholders who are blocked because of fines, which includes seven per cent of active children’s accounts system-wide.
Fines are not a “moneymaker” for the TNRL, and the amount collected each year has been steadily dropping, in part because of the increased number of people borrowing digital items. Because these items are automatically “returned” when their lending term is over, they cannot incur fines.
In 2017, fines accounted for $46,798. This total dropped to $11,587 in 2020, in part because of a “fines-free” practice during the pandemic. The TNRL also has a long history of not charging overdue fines for its Mobile Library and Library Home Service items.
Moore added there is a cost attached to collecting overdue fines, noting a study done for the North Vancouver City Library found that it cost 66 cents in staff costs and hardware costs for every dollar of fines recovered.
Many library systems, both internationally and domestically, are moving towards eliminating fines in order to remove barriers to accessing material. Ireland has instituted a nation-wide policy to eliminate all overdue fines, and several major cities in the United States have acted to eliminate fines, in part or in whole. Approximately 300 libraries across Canada have eliminated overdue fines in the past few years.
Many B.C. public libraries are also on board, including those in Whistler, Sechelt, Pemberton, Grand Forks, Powell River, North Vancouver City, Smithers, and Burnaby. Several others, including Vancouver Public Library, Surrey Libraries, Vancouver Island Regional Library, Coquitlam Public Library, and West Vancouver Memorial Library, have eliminated overdue fines for specific audiences, including children, teens, and seniors.
Children often have no way to pay fines, and — like adults with mobility issues — cannot easily get to a library to return materials. Moore said the TNRL uses email to remind patrons about overdue items, but people with little or no home internet access or limited digital literacy are less able to receive emails or use online renewal tools. People experiencing cognitive decline or memory loss can have a hard time managing due dates and may stop borrowing books for fear of incurring fines.
Lack of transit in rural areas is also an issue, as are economic challenges. In Barriere, just over 23 per cent of families receive some form of government assistance, and median employment income averages just under $25,000. Many patrons, especially those with low incomes, will not return to the library for even a small amount of money owing.
Several libraries that have gone “fine free” have reported increases in both borrowing and in library memberships. They also report no discernible difference in the rate of overdue items once fines are removed. Patrons with overdue items will still receive email or phone reminders, which for most people is all that is required to ensure items come back on time.
Moore said the TNRL puts a lot of effort into marketing its services and doing outreach, and has never been a particularly punitive library. “We try to find a way to lend materials, and we’ve definitely noticed an increase in the use of our digital suite of items. Eliminating fines is the next step, and staff are excited about this.”