When I visited the main branch of the Calgary Library recently I saw this sign announcing that their city libraries are now fine-free. This means patrons will no longer be charged late fees for not bringing back items in a timely manner. Winnipeg libraries have had a similar policy since January of 2021.
One of the reasons libraries have implemented this policy is that once families owed money to a library in late fees they simply stopped coming and that meant their children no longer had access to library books. In Calgary, they figured some 19,000 children had stopped coming to the library because of late fees.
Studies have shown children from low-income families are the ones most impacted. Their families can’t afford to pay their fines so they stop coming to the library even though these are exactly the same families who might not be able to afford to buy books for their children to read at home. Libraries should be places of equitable access and late fees undermined that.
Surprisingly research shows that when libraries eliminate late fees there is actually a higher return of books, circulation increases, as does library use. In most libraries that have eliminated late fees, 95% of the materials checked out are still returned. Of course, eliminating late fees does not mean eliminating all responsibility. If people lose books or damage them beyond repair, or never return them, they are still charged a replacement fee.
A CBC report in February of this year indicated some 300 library systems in Canada have eliminated late fees. Some started doing this during the pandemic for obvious reasons and then decided not to reinstitute the fees when services returned to normal. Although eliminating late fees does represent a loss of revenue for libraries, usually about 1% of their budgets, most have found creative ways to balance those losses.
Late fees may soon be a thing of the past at all libraries. I think that’s a good thing.